It’s worth a daily reminder: When markets are up, the environment is down

Richard Kool | August 27, 2019 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

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This article was originally published in The Conversation on May 9, 2019.

Many Canadians listen to the radio every morning and, as sure as the sun rises, we’ll hear the stock market report every weekday. Sometimes it’s up, sometimes it’s down, and some days it’s not moving much at all. And if you’re not listening to radio or watching TV, most newspapers will give you the same message, every morning, usually on the front of the business section.

In our world, “up” is usually associated with “good” while “down” is bad. Our moods fit this categorization; we might say “I’m on top of the world” when happy or “I’m in the pits” when feeling low. The phrases “I’m up” or “I’m down” need no further explanation.

The same goes for market reports. When the markets are up, the unstated message is that we should feel good; the economy is strong and things are looking up! When the market is not moving, well, tomorrow is another day, and there might be some market growth. When the market is down, that’s alarming. And when the market stays down, that is really not good at all.

But not everything that is up is good; cancer cells are stellar exemplars of growth, but when cancer is “up,” that’s not good for the patient. Some of us struggle with weight gain, and a rising number of pounds on the scale is not better. When interest rates are up, that’s great for those with money in the bank, but terrible if you’re paying off a large mortgage.

Is burning more carbon good?

A major issue in Canada right now relates to the growth of the oil and gas industry.

The world’s economy seems to be driven by the burning of carbon-based fuels, and Canada today seems to be divided on the issue of whether we should encourage the burning of carbon or discourage it. Our economy, some leaders tell us, is going to be down unless we put more carbon up into the atmosphere; burning more carbon will lift the economy and if we don’t, we’re heading for a depression.

However, the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report notes that, due to the growth in the burning of fossil fuels:

“Human activities are estimated to have caused approximately 1.0C of global warming above pre-industrial levels, with a likely range of 0.8C to 1.2C. Global warming is likely to reach 1.5C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate….”

Because we can’t see carbon dioxide, the continued use of the atmosphere as a cesspool is only revealed through daily monitoring, since the late 1950s, by the late Charles Keeling and his colleagues at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii.

Mauna Loa Observatory
This 2009 photo shows the Mauna Loa Observatory atmospheric research facility on the island of Hawaii. The station has been studying atmospheric change since the 1950s. (AP Photo/Chris Stewart)

While the Mauna Loa data is nothing like the Dow Jones or TSX indices, I think we can use the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere as an indicator of how we are doing in managing the global commons. When the daily CO2 report is greater than the measure for the same day in the previous year, the quality of the world’s environment is down. CO2 in the atmosphere has a
seasonal periodicity, so during the late spring and summer months in the northern hemisphere, the actual amount of CO2 in the air goes down, only to rise again in the fall and winter, thus year over year comparisons are the relevant ones.

Weather is nature, global warming is economic

Global warming and climate instability are the outcomes of our economic system’s activity. What happens to our weather on a daily basis is due to atmospheric physics; what is happening to climate is due to the global economy.

Indeed, greenhouse gas emissions are closely tied to national gross domestic product numbers. As Dalhousie University researchers Larry Hughes and Ayesha Herian note:

“For much of the post-Second World War period, the growth of many national economies was closely correlated with an increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The strong coupling of economic growth and GHG emissions has been a major contributor to human-induced climate change.”

Canada’s commitment to the Paris climate change agreement means that we need to begin to differentiate the performance of our economy from the continued proliferation of greenhouse gases. The market reports offer an interesting place to, on a daily basis, make this clear.

We want the economy to do well and we need the environment to do well, and this reminder — that when the one is doing well, the other isn’t — can be simply and regularly communicated in daily media market reports, and would speak precisely to the audience that needs to understand it.

An increase in many things is beneficial to us all — equality, beauty and wisdom, for example. But when carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is on the upswing, it’s not good.

We can work for growth in the domains of beauty, equality and wisdom with no worry. However, the endless pursuit of economic growth is a fool’s mission; globally, when the economy is up, the environment is down..

So when your morning radio show or the daily newspaper gives the latest details on the stock markets, they should also give the daily level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, compare it to the same day in the previous year, and be clear that when CO2 is up, everything else is in trouble.

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  • If the metric was to report a sustainability index or another measure of true social health instead of a how much richer are the richer getting index things would be totally different. Above I see someone saying we need a new kind of leader. Yes we do, but that would not be enough if the values media uses to prepare their reports of progress does not change. Several changes have to happen all at once.

  • Iuval Clejan

    It seems a no brainer that if the problem is the global economy (i.e. local in time and space benefits, global in time and space costs and global in time and space feedbacks), that the solution should be to localize the economy so that benefits, costs and feedbacks are local, allowing for immediate corrections, instead of global ones like global warming. This would require localizing technology, both re-networking pre-industrial craftspeople and farmers, and innovating based on what we now know that we didn’t before the industrial revolution. I’ve posted this in the Ideas for Action section, and I would like some feedback, but there seems to be no vehicle for this currently.

  • Steven Earl Salmony

    The human-driven global ecological challenges looming ominously before us require a new kind of leader, a global institutional framework and necessary behavior change by individuals, groups and corporate ‘personhoods’. Imagine a Global Ecological Preservation Institution (GEPI) that matches in size and forcefulness the colossal Global Political Economy. This “economic colossus” is casting so giant a shadow over the surface of Earth that it threatens future human well being and environmental health. People with power in the GEPI will be able to enforce the words, “We cannot do anything that harms God’s Creation needlessly.” Economy would be subordinated permanently to Ecology.

    • Steven Earl Salmony

      The global political economy is a pyramid scheme, but it could not have ever grown into the “economic colossus” it is today if the size of the human population of Earth had not been allowed to grow exponentially in a seemingly endless way.

      • Iuval Clejan

        Population can be stabilized if people live only from their local ecosystem. If they overshoot the carrying capacity, there is an immediate correction/feedback. The situation now is some people can externalize their costs to others or to the future and continue to grow for a while.

    • Iuval Clejan

      There might be a very limited role for GEPI, but unless we are able to localize economies, it won’t be able to do much, unless it used Draconian enforcement means. Even then, it has the same fundamental problem as the global economy: immediate benefits to the employees of GEPI, global and delayed costs and feedbacks to everyone. You can’t expect GEPI employees to act in the interest of someone far away in the future even with the best of intentions, and humans often do not have the best of intentions for others, especially if those others are far away and in the future. Self interest is always there.

      Maybe the role for a hypothetical GEPI would be to fund efforts to localize economies. A limited role that does not require global feedbacks.

  • Dana Visalli

    Thanks for pointing out this underappreciated fact Richard. Vandana Shiva expressed it succinctly: ‘When the economy is up, nature is down.’ My friends are all invested in market stock, I invest in root stock. I think population should always be mentioned; no way to stabilize carbon emissions while human numbers are still increasing.

    • RichardKool

      I didn’t know that the great Dr. Shiva had used the same framing… thanks for pointing this out.

      I am in on-going discussions with both media outlets and those that provide stock-market reports to see who would be the first to do what I am proposing. While there is some interest, I have not yet been successful in getting anyone, though, to try this out!

  • ThisOldMan

    Almost 3 decades after Hanson’s Congressional testimony, not only is the rampant use of fossil fuels everywhere silently exploding, but now we’re being treated to the blatant atrocities of Trump’s assault on our public lands, Bolsonaro’s vicious attack on the Amazon rainforest, and Australia’s election of a climate-denier even as the Great Barrier Reef dies on their doorstep. These facts have convinced me that our best hope for change with the speed and scale needed lies in a modern-day equivalent of the Great Depression, which takes down the global economy long enough for the climate chaos that all the CO2 already in the atmosphere guarantees to kick us in our collective nuts hard enough to bring us to our senses before it truly is too late to save our civilization.

  • GrowthBuster

    Thanks, Richard, for highlighting this oft-overlooked conflict between economic growth and sustainability. We need to be having more conversations about what it should really mean when we say, as you wronte, “We want the economy to do well….”