An oligarch does as much damage to the climate in a day as an average person does in five years, according to a leading anthropologist and environmental researcher. Nevertheless, he remains hopeful
Ayelett Shani | Sep. 20, 2018

interview with Prof. Dan Rabinowitz.

By chance, the timing of my call was good.

Indeed. I’ve just returned from a sabbatical in New York. I taught at Columbia and took part in a research group on inequality – specifically, in my case, carbon inequality. Actually, what most interests me is mapping carbon dioxide emissions for different strata of the population. Within the framework of my research, I focused on the wealthiest people, in the very highest percentile.

What did you discover?

The bit of information that I like most came from a woman who manages an agency in Monaco harbor. Her agency prepares the yachts that belong to world’s richest people, which anchor there ahead of their cruises – from maintenance of the engine to whatever capricious thing the owners may want.

What did she tell you?

One evening this woman gets a phone call from the personal secretary of an oligarch’s daughter. It turns out that the family had landed just a few minutes earlier, and when they got to the yacht the oligarch’s daughter discovered she’d forgotten her baby intercom at home in Moscow. No problem, the woman tells the secretary, I’ll send someone to buy a new intercom; in a quarter of an hour it’ll be with you on the yacht. No, the secretary replies, the lady doesn’t want a replacement, she wants the original from Moscow.

The poor baby.

So what do you think happened? The private plane that had just landed flew back to Moscow. Three-and-a-half hours each way. An emission of 49 tons of carbon dioxide just to bring the intercom.

What are the implications of that story? Can you rate it according to some sort of scale?

The average Israeli citizen is responsible for the emission of 11 tons a year. That includes everything. His flights. His home. His car. Everything.

Is that considered high or low, relative to the rest of the world?

It falls on the average-high side for an industrialized country. Higher than most countries in Europe, where public transportation and energy conservation are more developed. In short, in one night, the oligarch’s daughter had the impact that the average Israeli generates over five years. That’s actually the whole story in a nutshell.

We started from the end. Now it’s almost superfluous to ask what climatic injustice is.

Climatic injustice takes two forms. First there is the exposure side – namely, how vulnerable we are to the effects of climate change. Of course people who live in undeveloped and desert countries are far more vulnerable to temperature increases, water distress, rising food prices, etc., than affluent people living in developed countries. I deal with the second half of the equation: Who contributes most to climate change.

The equation is clear from that perspective: Rich people contribute more, the poor less. Significantly.

By rough estimate, about half the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere stem from the electricty production by power stations. Another one-quarter comes from transportation and the rest from industry. Since Third World countries are obviously less industrialized, they also cause less pollution. Moreover, their industrialization process got underway much later than in the countries in northern and western Europe and in North America, which have been industrialized for 200 years.

And at the same time the stronger countries have relocated most of their production to the undeveloped countries. The contribution of China to the level of greenhouse gases around the globe, which is more than Europe and North America combined, doesn’t stem only from consumption by the Chinese themselves.

China today produces the largest quantity of greenhouse gases. A considerable proportion of that is due to the fact that the whole [developed] world is exporting its industries to China. Most of the studies that deal with the subject draw a comparison between countries, but because I come from the fields of sociology and anthropology, my research deals with a comparison within countries. I actually want to show that the rich contribute a great deal more to the climate crisis, yet the likelihood they will survive it and not have to pay a price for their actions, is far greater. That’s true both within states and between states.

Cancer from someone else’s cigarettes

I recently happened across a good illustration of that principle: metaphorically, it’s like someone who stands next to a heavy smoker and gets lung cancer.

I would add – he’s also the one who paid for the cigarettes. One of the Indian representatives at a climate conference a few years ago said that the “cake” of industrialization is being eaten in the Northern Hemisphere, but the stomachaches remain in the South.

Perhaps you can elaborate.

We’re all familiar with the term “carbon footprint.” The more we consume, the larger our carbon footprint. So that even if we said that in Israel the average is 11 tons a year, that’s actually the result of an averaging of the people belonging to the lower percentiles – who consume less, who don’t own a car and whose annual emission ranges between three and four tons – and the wealthy populations, who live in spacious homes and maintain fleets of vehicles and private planes, etc.

A few years ago, we checked the disparity between the lowest and highest percentiles in Israel in three realms: automobile travel, electricity usage and food consumption. In regard to vehicles and electricity, the rich contribute 27 times as much as the poor to the greenhouse effect. In food it’s only twice as much, simply because there’s a limit to how much food one can consume.

But that’s obvious, isn’t it? Carbon inequality is simply another derivative of socioeconomic inequality, disparity and polarization. That’s the system.

The system also encourages those who can afford it to consume ever more without placing obstacles in their way. For example, Israel does not levy a carbon tax, which in the view of some is the only thing that might save us. Technologically, it’s possible to keep track of how much carbon dioxide each of us emits. To illustrate: Our car can be linked to a mechanism that monitors the amounts of fuel and frequency of use, and we can be asked to pay more if we deviate from the average. But that won’t happen, because it conflicts with the neoliberal rationale, whereby people are encouraged to consume as much as they can.

Have you ever stopped to think why politicians don’t like to be identified with economizing? Why they prefer to have a dancer serve as the face of a campaign to save water [a reference to an Israel Water Authority commercial], even though it’s an excellent opportunity for a public figure to get personal exposure? In a neoliberal regime, where over-consumption is the ideal, no one gets elected because he introduced a regimen of austerity, rationing or taxation. Just the opposite.

The pattern of usage of public resources also conforms to that approach.

That’s privatization. When you transfer a natural resource to private hands, any prospect of restraint ends, because from the outset the interest of the private body – to make as much money as possible in as short a time as possible – conflicts with environmental thinking and a desire to conserve the resource. Neoliberal logic opts for money, and to hell with the resource.

Did someone mention the Dead Sea?

We could mention many other things. Among them the ability of the atmosphere to retain carbon dioxide. What is actually happening in terms of climate change? We are compressing more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than it can break down, so its only recourse is to store it – like the body stores fat.

The point is that countries themselves lack the ability – and also, in fact, the desire – to change the situation. James Hansen, a former NASA climate scientist, maintains that the whole political system around the world is tainted by bribery and that the only way to effect change is through the courts.

I think that the American legal system is more reliable in this respect than that in other countries. Hansen is indeed one of the pioneers in the field. His Senate testimony about global warming, in June 1988, was the trigger for the debate about the climate. Until then the subject wasn’t even on the table. But 30 years ago, Hansen both asserted that there is such a thing [as climate change] and also predicted many of the phenomena we’re seeing today. He started out as a climate scientist, and went through a process that I’ve seen among many such scientists in the past few years. They understand that, however brilliant and comprehensive and deep they are in their research, the real problem, ultimately, is political. And that, by the way, is what also encouraged me to deal with this subject.

What is actually the connection between anthropology and sociology, on the one hand, and climate? We are simply being drawn into this discussion by the scientists themselves, because they understand that their knowledge in engineering, technology or physics isn’t enough. They need to know how to cope with such rigid and self-interested structures.

‘Worrisome prognoses’

That’s exactly Hansen’s argument: that only a judicial system can allow itself to be untainted. Because various states, in his formulation, are caught in the pincers of capital and vested interests. Does anyone believe that U.S. President Donald Trump, say, will tell Shell Oil that they need to earn less, for the sake of our children?

Let’s look at it briefly from the point of view of the big energy corporations. It’s a very complex story for them. They invest trillions in acquiring franchises, in production, transportation, storage and in marketing types of energy, particularly petroleum, gas and coal, and we know that coal is harmful. If we take the revolution to them, we are effectively saying: Bury all your business plans. That’s a result that is absolutely untenable for them. So the smart American president who intends to spearhead change will have to find other ways – which do exist – such as taxation and various incentives, to help them make the transition. To take their vast profits and invest them in alternative energy.

Fine, we’ll wait for a smart American president and we’ll see.

Take George W. Bush, for example. He will always be remembered for the first five years of his presidency, during which he was a declared climate-change denier. Officials in the administration were instructed regularly to censor scientific reports published by NASA and others, in order to moderate the worrisome prognoses about global warming, and especially the effect of emissions whose source was the energy and automobile industries, among others. But in his last years in office, the messages that came from him were toned down. Some people attribute this to the insurance lobby, which at that time started to show signs of anxiety because of the anticipated damage, mainly from agriculture and the food industry, and because of the greater frequency and intensity of tropical storms. The situation was aggravated after Hurricane Katrina and the tremendous damage in New Orleans.

So you say that what can actually tip the scales is a powerful interest in the other direction?

That too. In Europe, for example, the thrust toward [addressing climate] change didn’t happen because of vested interests, but because of decency and because they listen to scientists. In China, too, this change is starting for completely different reasons – because the Chinese public, which is seeing with its own eyes the effect of air pollution, is pushing for change. I’m optimistic, and not necessarily because I know the exact route by which salvation will come in every place. It comes for different reasons in different countries, but it can come.

Let’s return for a moment to the social gaps and to the way they were manifested in New Orleans after the disaster there in 2005. Wealthy people fled ahead of time, and the poor were left to wave at rescue teams from the rooftops.

There are a number of countries that particularly excel in this matter of inequality. Israel is always high up in the charts, especially during the past two decades.

But in the case of Israel, the state itself is strong. Let’s say that tomorrow 30 percent of its territory turns into an arid desert. The state could cover for that, and assist its citizenry; whereas the same development could cause the total collapse of, say, the Central African Republic.

A nondeveloped country has no capacity to cope with natural disasters. That already raises more complex questions, concrete moral ones, about the scope of the solidarity and mutual surety that the human race owes itself, and about whether the stronger countries need to be guarantors of the weaker countries – or whether, as the right wing claimed long before Trump, not only are we not required to help the weak and the poor, but we absolutely must not help them, because that creates more and more of the weak.

This relates to another phenomenon that’s connected to climate inequality: climate migrants. It’s estimated that there will be millions of these migrants in the coming decades. If we take as an example the Syrian refugee crisis, which is on a far lesser scale quantitatively, it’s likely that the strong countries will shut their gates.

Of course. Not everyone is [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel.

How do we know that we’ve reached the point at which a certain place becomes unfit for human habitation?

The inhabitants themselves know. In southern Bangladesh, for example, tens of millions of people live in a region below sea level that is very vulnerable, obviously, to a rise in the water level. Groundwater salinization along the coast has already begun, but the farmers who live there obviously will know precisely when their wells have become unusable, when they no longer have water for irrigation. Similarly, we can look at the situation in Syria. The civil war in Syria began in 2011, but during the five years preceding that, beginning in 2006, Syria underwent the worst drought in its history.

Yes, I know the hypothesis that draws a connection between the drought and the war.

What’s happened in Syria is that, in the wake of the drought, farmers started to migrate to urban centers. Even before that, there was already tremendous domestic tension in the country between different communities, and in the wake of the migration, which forced different groups to live together, there were clashes and great unrest that effectively constituted the trigger for the civil war. The demographic balances and the balance of power changed, the government couldn’t cope, and a civil war began.

That’s an especially interesting aspect of climate change, the way it exacerbates the war of existence. What happens in an undeveloped country where tremendous internal tension exists – such as, let’s say, in most of the countries in Africa – when the “pie” of resources, which is small from the start, becomes even smaller?

What happens is, you get Darfurians in Tel Aviv.


We started hearing about the Horn of Africa only at the end of the 1990s. But if we look back earlier, the region underwent accelerated desertification in the 1980s, and the ability to sustain agriculture decreased dramatically. Because of climate change, naturally, production constantly fell. That by itself didn’t yet prompt the Darfurians to undertake their biblical journeys by foot to Tel Aviv. But the greater the distress became, the more ethnic identity played a role in subsistence and survival. What actually aggravated and heightened the internal tensions in Darfur was the generous aid that came from Europe.


Because that aid arrived in the form of food dropped from planes. Of course, it’s a lot easier to seize by force a food shipment that’s been airlifted in, than it is to try to grow crops in parched fields. The friction between ethnic groups constantly increased, until civil war erupted and drove tens and hundreds of thousands to flee the country. Naturally, I don’t contend that there was some sort of clear, unidirectional trend here, that started with climate change and ended with Sudanese and Darfurians in Tel Aviv. There is a certain butterfly-effect element here. But there’s no doubt that these processes nourish each other: warming, desertification, distress, hunger, ethnic rifts, civil wars, waves of refugees.

The refugees who arrived in Israel don’t term themselves climate migrants or environmental migrants, but rather political refugees, and that’s correct, but there’s no doubt that amid all this tumult there is also a significant and even decisive environmental element, in the wake of which they were compelled to leave their country. If we think in depth about climate change, we have to take into account all the catastrophes that are on the way. Whole populations that will be uprooted and become nomadic, possibly even becoming extinct.

This is all very depressing.

I know.

How do you live with it?

I am a generally optimistic and positive person, and I somehow manage to make the separation. In the first 20 years of my academic career, I dealt with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

And then you came to the conclusion that that was not depressing enough?

And then I switched to an even more depressing topic. I can’t really understand why I did it.

Maybe you enjoy problems that no one else is really interested in solving.

I think that we don’t need to think about a [single] solution. If we think about a solution [that succeeds or fails, one or the other], it will become binary: solution-no solution.

There is a solution, but it runs contrary to every immediate interest.

True, but even so, some countries are aiming for it. Britain and Germany, for example, are doing amazing things, even though the problem is vast and supposedly insoluble. They reduced the amount of their carbon dioxide emissions by dozens of percentage points compared to the 1990s. So apparently it is possible.

It’s possible, but will it happen? The bottom line is that the quantity of emissions is only increasing.

I can’t say that’s what will happen. The fact is that in certain countries things are happening. The more significant thing is the rate of improvement versus the inertia of destruction. There are two poles here that are behaving differently. Globally, the amount of carbon dioxide that continues to be compressed into the atmosphere is still increasing. On the other hand, in some countries it’s on a decline.

Let me guess – in Scandinavia.

Right. But that’s not to say that in other countries the situation is fixed, and can’t change. There’s already a group of 30 countries that are cutting down. That’s cause for great hope and it also gives rise to working models. By means of legislation, regulation, through what people know how to do – for the same reasons that the human species is so successful and is able at certain moments to join forces, cooperate, invent and renew. Our struggle is not over “all or nothing,” it’s about saving as much as possible. After all, the [entire] human race isn’t about to become extinct, but certain groups within it are going to suffer a great deal and perhaps also become extinct.

The fate of some of the flat islands in the Indian Ocean, for example, is already sealed. Other places, undeveloped areas and desert regions, might experience a steep plunge in population size. This has happened before in human history. Mass starvation, epidemics, etc., which led to a dramatic reduction in the size of the population. So I prefer to define the question not in terms of whether there is a solution or not, but to what extent the solutions will wield influence and trickle down, in order to reverse the trend. There’s no doubt that overall, this is a very worrisome trend, especially with regard to weak populations.

Yes. In one of your articles you write: One day we will look back and simply not believe.

As the cliché goes, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. I think that if we were to live in some future world, where the temperature outside is unbearable for many months of the year, when the ability simply to walk around outside will be constantly diminishing, where we will use resources, including fuel and energy, in a way completely different from today, where everything will be controlled and measured and limited – when we look back on the wild way in which we are living today, to a world where most people are completely unaware of the significance of carbon to their way of life, we simply wouldn’t believe that we ever lived like that.

After all, if we’d been told 70 years ago that the street corner where we’re sitting – Rothschild and Ahad Ha’am [in Tel Aviv] – would have cafes and be a busy thoroughfare, and not a drowsy road along which a camel convoy occasionally passes by, we wouldn’t have believed it.