The global scientific community calls for a total rethink of how we manage our economy. Every economist must answer the central charge: justify this economic paradigm or help us shift to a new one. 

The 2023 state of the climate report: Entering uncharted territory was released in October. You can, and you really should read the full paper. The report says:

We must shift our perspective on the climate emergency from being just an isolated environmental issue to a systemic, existential threat.

Read that again: existential threat.

The authors put our current economic paradigm in the dock. In summary, they say we can not go on like this: living way beyond our means, burning through our non-renewable resources (minerals and fossil fuels) as if there is no tomorrow. In fact, this fixation with perpetual growth will ensure that, at some point, there is no tomorrow.

The 2023 state of the climate report: economists must justify their actions

The report directly addresses our economic system on page 7:

Economic growth, as it is conventionally pursued, is unlikely to allow us to achieve our social, climate, and biodiversity goals. The fundamental challenge lies in the difficulty of decoupling economic growth from harmful environmental impacts. Although technological advancements and efficiency improvements can contribute to some degree of decoupling, they often fall short in mitigating the overall ecological footprint of economic activities. The impacts vary greatly by wealth; in 2019, the top 10% of emitters were responsible for 48% of global emissions, whereas the bottom 50% were responsible for just 12%. We therefore need to change our economy to a system that supports meeting basic needs for all people instead of excessive consumption by the wealthy.

Without saying the words, this is a statement that supports national and international redistribution. It is clearly supportive of a degrowth narrative.

As long as humanity continues to exert extreme pressure on the Earth, any attempted climate only solutions will only redistribute this pressure (page 8).

It is our current economic system that exerts this extreme pressure. The report adds:

We emphasize climate justice and fair distribution of the costs and benefits of climate action, particularly for vulnerable communities. We call for a transformation of the global economy to prioritize human well-being and to provide for a more equitable distribution of resources (page 8).

The authors call for a “transformation of the global economy”, not a slightly nicer one. They don’t envisage small increases in taxes on the wealthy, a bit more strength in the social safety net or that changing your car to an electric one will work. They see the problems at the heart of our economic system, and they call them out. Our current system is rapacious and has no concern for the wellbeing of individuals or the planet.

Policymakers at every level of government must respond to this call. Economists in positions of power, one and all, must present their retort to the scientific community. Here is the charge: your management of our resources will destroy humanity. How can you justify this economic paradigm?

A full paragraph from the report is worth including in full:

We warn of potential collapse of natural and socioeconomic systems in such a world where we will face unbearable heat, frequent extreme weather events, food and fresh water shortages, rising seas, more emerging diseases, and increased social unrest and geopolitical conflict. Massive suffering due to climate change is already here, and we have now exceeded many safe and just Earth system boundaries, imperiling stability and life-support systems. As we will soon bear witness to failing to meet the Paris agreement’s aspirational 1.5°C goal, the significance of immediately curbing fossil fuel use and preventing every further 0.1°C increase in future global heating cannot be overstated. Rather than focusing only on carbon reduction and climate change, addressing the underlying issue of ecological overshoot will give us our best shot at surviving these challenges in the long run. This is our moment to make a profound difference for all life on Earth, and we must embrace it with unwavering courage and determination to create a legacy of change that will stand the test of time.

Every time you hear a politician talking about anything that sounds like business as usual or something about growth solving all of our problems, remember this last paragraph. Business as usual is no life at all.