Global warming and poverty

What are the things that you could definitely not do without?

Think about it. Could you do without your car? Could you do without a new outfit every week? How long could you go without food? Or clean air? Could you go without a foreign holiday? Or perhaps a trip to the pub or theatre? Could you live without these? How about education? How many of these things are essential, how many are luxuries and how many are absolute basic needs?

The clock is ticking

Why, you might be thinking, are you asking me what I could go without. The obvious answer is that at the present rate of decline in our environment we may well be forced to forego a few minor luxuries. Such as food, clean air, water, that type of thing. That’s not, however the focus of my thoughts today although it so easily could have been because here’s a statistic that should worry all of us. On September 21st last year (2020)  artists Gan Golan and Andrew Boyd unveiled The Climate Clock which warned that there were 7 years, 101 days until Earth’s carbon budget is depleted, based on current emission rates. 273 days have elapsed since that point. If you are under 90 there is a good chance that the irreversible damage done to the planet by human activity will occur in your lifetime. As the Morning Star reported the latest United Nations report makes sobering reading: “Tens of millions are likely to face chronic hunger by 2050, with some 350 million people living in urban areas at risk of water scarcity from severe droughts at 1.5°C of warming. This rises to 410m people at 2°C.” So if anyone is labouring under the illusion that climate catastrophe is a long way off and not worth worrying about yet it really is time to get your heads away from your posterior and face up to what we are collectively doing.

I know that at least some of the people reading this will be thinking: but hang on, aren’t you blaming me and people like me for something that is really down to the government? Well, no I’m not, but I would ask which government is it that you want to blame? Climate catastrophe is not happening in any one country and it is not caused by any one bad decision, it is happening across the entire globe and it is a series of decisions which we have been unable or unwilling to reverse that is the cause. I also know that there are plenty of people out there, probably not reading this, who think that climate change, like everything else they don’t like, is not really happening. Its all a conspiracy dreamed up by totalitarian governments who want to control us all. Well, thank goodness for QAnon for putting us right on this, but I’ll put my faith in scientists who spend a lifetime studying these things thankyou very much.

If you want you can watch videos by failed politicians or people who think the World is being run by lizards telling you that you have nothing to worry about. Some of these people will throw in that Covid-19 is all a hoax too, and just don’t get them started on 9/11. On the other hand, you can listen to climate experts from, to name a few: Australian Academy of Sciences, Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Sciences and the Arts, Brazilian Academy of Sciences, Royal Society of Canada, Caribbean Academy of Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences, French Academy of Sciences, German Academy of Natural Scientists Leopoldina, Indian National Science Academy, Indonesian Academy of Sciences, Royal Irish Academy, Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei (Italy), Academy of Sciences Malaysia, Academy Council of the Royal Society of New Zealand, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Turkish Academy of Sciences, and Royal Society (UK).


In a paper published in Science magazine in 2001 they argued that: “it is at least 90% certain that temperatures will continue to rise, with average global surface temperature projected to increase by between 1.4° and 5.8°C above1990 levels by 2100. This increase will be accompanied by rising sea levels; more intense precipitation events in some countries and increased risk of drought in others; and adverse effects on agriculture, health, and water resources.” Now just hold on here when was that published? That’s right – 2001. Twenty years later and we are still arguing about what to do. By the way, in case you think I’m being a bit alarmist here, according to NASA between 2001 and 2020 there was not a single year where the average global temperature was not a minimum of 1°C higher than the average for 1951-1980. 

So, I come back to my earlier question: What could you live without? Let’s start with an obvious one. Could you live without food? Well, most of us in the so-called developed nations could probably do with losing a few pounds, but the truth is that nobody can live without food. It is, genuinely, a basic need for your survival. Unlike, say, a foreign holiday or for that matter a holiday of any description. Over the past 15 months as Covid-19 has disrupted what we like to think of as normality I have lost count of the number of times I have heard or seen people declaring their “need” for a holiday. Let me be absolutely clear. A holiday may be a nice thing, it may have all sorts of positive outcomes for individuals, but nobody “needs” a holiday. They may want one, but they do not need one. And, in times of great crisis we all have to make sacrifices and that 10 days on a beach in Benidorm is just one of the casualties of our previous lifestyles catching up with us.

But, I’m not here to tell you not to take a holiday, but rather to question whether our collective consumption levels are sustainable. A House of Commons Briefing Paper on Food Poverty published this year tells us that 5 million people were in what they term ‘food insecure households‘. What that means in simple terms is that 5 million of our fellow citizens in the UK alone do not have sufficient resources to ensure that they or their children have enough food every day. That briefing paper makes a very clear connection between food poverty and income poverty. Who would have thought it. One of the parts of your budget that you have some control over is the amount you spend on food whereas things like rent or mortgage or fuel tend to be fixed amounts. So, when bad times hit, food consumption is often one of the first things that gets cut. In particular, women will very often go without to ensure that their children can eat.

A Global Problem

It would be mildly reassuring to think that these figures were unique to the UK and it was all down to the obvious incompetence of our government. Unfortunately, the UK as bad as it is, is not alone, neither is it among the worst examples of food poverty. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation calculates that since around 2014 the number of people undernourished and actually starving has been rising year on year. In 2014 they estimated that 628.9 million people worldwide were undernourished. By 2019 that figure had risen to 687.8 million. These figures are, it has to be conceded, difficult to get your head around. But if you think that in 5 years the numbers of undernourished people rose by, more or less, the equivalent of the population of Britain, you will soon realise that this is a major and endemic problem.

Global warming will inevitably make these figures worse, but they are not solely a function of the climate. Of course, as the climate crisis develops the amount of food being produced will be affected. The Ecologist reports that: “One study conducted by Arizona State University found greenhouse gas emissions could cause the yield of vegetables to fall by 35% by 2100. The reasons for the lower yields varied between factors such as water shortages and an increase in salinity and less filtering of the sun’s rays.” 

It is estimated that each day humans consume about 5.2 billion gallons of water and 21 billion pounds of food. As the population increases clearly those demands will grow at exactly the same time as global warming will make it more difficult, if not impossible, to sustain those figures. In other words, as the demand for food and water, those basic needs we have to meet, rises so the supply will, unless there is some amazing and unforeseen technological or scientific advance, fall. At the moment, as with most things, there is a huge disparity in the consumption of food and water between the richest parts of the World and the poorest.

Distribution not income is the cause of poverty

We have grown accustomed to thinking of poverty as related to income. This, I suggest, is an error. People think that happiness or at least a feeling of comfort can be had by having a few more bucks in the bank. An American survey found that people thought that around $624,00 per year (about £445k) would see them comfortable. Unfortunately, most people are a long way from this figure as the average income is a mere $68,703 (£49,479). Only 10% of Americans earn over $100,000 a year whilst some 34 million Americans are below the poverty line. Poverty has never been about income it has always been about distribution. That said, Michael Roberts, a Marxist economist I have mentioned previously, estimates in his latest blog based on the annual Suisse Credit Report “that the bottom 50% of adults in the global wealth distribution together accounted for less than 1% of total global wealth at the end of 2020. In contrast, the richest decile (top 10% of adults) owns 82% of global wealth and the top percentile alone has nearly half (45%) of all household assets.  These ratios have hardly changed in 20 years.” Note that final sentence. These ratios have barely changed in 20 years. So much for the trickle down effect.

If this situation was only 20 years old it would be an indictment of the 21st Century social system. But, although there have certainly been changes in the way we live the extent of poverty was first mapped by Charles Booth in 1886. Prior to that Karl Marx made extensive use of factory inspector reports in Capital which was published in 1867. Kenneth Galbraith, one of the foremost economists of the twentieth century published ‘The Nature of Mass Poverty’ in 1979, Susan George published ‘How the other half dies – the real reason for World hunger’ in 1986 and as recently as 2019 the United Nations condemned the British government for its austerity programme, a programme incidentally supported by most so-called developing nations. The point is that poverty is not new, and the only conclusion that follows logically is that it is an endemic feature of our social system.As Susan George noted in an oration in 2007: “I believe that the forces of wealth, power and control are invariably at the root of any problem of social and political economy.

A question that moral philosophers often ask their students is this: if you were walking down the street and saw somebody who was obviously starving and you had the means to do so, would you help them? Most students answer that they would, but often get challenged because their peers know full well that they are fairly oblivious to all the homeless people they see on the streets. Nonetheless, the question about being prepared to help has a moral dimension in that regardless of what we do in practice we know what we should do in theory. Now, if you are prepared to help somebody who is hungry if they are in your view the next question is would you be prepared to help somebody who you couldn’t see? This is where things get more tricky, of course. Confronted with the inequality which is built into the system many people will give up a few pence to alleviate the worst of those symptoms. But, in a World where the hunger caused by our consumption is often thousands of miles away, the same impulses do not work.

Is charity a bad thing?

There are a number of psychological reasons why this is the case. American psychologist Sara Konrath asked people what motivated them to give to charity. She came up with 6 reasons: “altruism, trust, social, (financial) constraints, egoism, and taxes“. There are no great surprises here. But, even if we think that people giving to charity is not necessarily a bad thing, it clearly does very little to alleviate poverty. What charitable giving does more than anything is make people who are already doing a bit better than others feel good about themselves. The other important point about charitable giving is that it simply reproduces the social system that caused the need for charity in the first place. From a socialist perspective it leaves those in poverty as victims unable to fight for themselves whilst those with incomes and jobs are painted as their saviours.

Am I being too hard on charity? I am sure that many readers of this article, and its author, give to charity. But lets take the big fund raiser Children In Need, broadcast on the BBC as an indicator of the way in which charity has become embedded in our social fabric. The first Children In Need was broadcast in 1980 and it raised just over £1 million. Each year the telethon sets itself the target of raising more money and by 1997 it was raising nearly £21 million. In 2017 it raised just short of £61 million, a figure it has since failed to match. In 2009, when Children In Need raised £40.2 million, the Labour Government began closing or merging Sure Start Centres, a policy that the Lib Dems and Conservatives took up with enthusiasm as part of their austerity programme. Sure Start Centres had a budget in 2009 of £885 million. The point is that even if charities can raise millions of pounds each year they cannot hope to replace government funding.

To put this into figures. In 1979 approximately 12.6% of children in the UK were living in poverty, by 1996 it was 32.9%. By 2010, after 13 years of New Labour the percentage of children in poverty  was about 18%. This is seen as a major achievement of the Blair and Brown governments but we should note that it was still 5-6% above the figures Margaret Thatcher inherited. I am not getting into a bunfight with Blairites over the fact that 900,000 children were raised out of poverty, but the point is that 18% of children whilst better than 33% is not really an indication that poverty was ever going to be eradicated. Indeed, raising people above the breadline by various government measures, mainly to do with benefits and tax, whilst desirable in its own right is more a failure to address poverty than a significant success in giving poor people back their dignity. As Mike Stanton says on this week’s Socialist Hour: “The Blairites forget the bit about being tough on the causes of crime“, he could have added that they also forgot about being tough on the causes of poverty.

Tough on capitalism, tough on the causes of capitalism

If you have a social system founded on the belief in rich people having money to invest in entrepreneurial schemes which create jobs for people lacking such money, it is inevitable that you must have a minimum of two social classes. First a class that has wealth and second a class that has no wealth. In this respect, capitalism is very successful. Not only has it created these two classes, but it has ensured that whilst the first class (lets call them the bourgeoisie for fun) is relatively small and stable, the second big class (lets give them a funny name too, how about the proletariat?) cannot escape from the conditions of poverty or near poverty that the bourgeoisie rely on to maintain their extravagant life styles. There is simply no way that we can have a capitalist system without capitalists. And, therefore, there is no way that we can have a capitalist system without proletarians.

I should explain here since I’ve thrown in a bit of Marxist jargon, that the proletariat are not the working class, although often Marxists will make that connection. Technically speaking the proletariat are those who are productive workers creating commodities for sale. So whilst all proletarians are working class, not all the working class are proletarians. Not that this really matters for this argument. Even in  a socialist economy some of the problems we are now experiencing would continue if we continue with our present levels of consumption. It would probably be a disaster for the planet if in eradicating poverty we were to bring 687.8 million to the same levels of average consumption as those not currently in poverty. 

And, this is a major problem facing those of us who want to end poverty. We cannot continue the current levels of consumption without severely damaging the planet. But, morally, we cannot continue to support a social system where the unequal distribution is so unfair as to leave millions without sufficient food or shelter. Simply replacing capitalism is no longer the option it once appeared. The task facing socialists is to replace capitalism whilst at the same time winning the argument that we must stop jumping on jet planes for holidays in the sun, or buying rubbish we do not need but still want. Which brings me back to my earlier question: what things are you prepared to give up both to bring other people out of poverty and, equally importantly, to save the planet?

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Dave Middleton
I'm Dave Middleton. I am a member of the Labour Party (until they catch up with me) and like to think of myself as left-wing. My Twitter account is @DavMidd Please do feel free to email me about this blog at
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Ann Marcial
2 years ago

Another great article Dave, bit how do we change the situation for the people down the toad whose reality is penny pinching and doing without to give the kids? Is that a quality of life for parents or children. Weighing up environmental damage and levels of poverty what is the answer to be to resolve this before those 7 years pass?