Maybe we should start hoping for a recession to fix climate change

America's on a hiding to nothing, and it's not much better here.

I've never been a big fan of horror movies. Too many rely on artificial tension built around soundtracks and surprises, and, while I'm not going to pretend that artificial tension built around soundtracks and surprises can't scare the bejeezus out of me, I prefer my terror more existential. More insidious. And above all, delivered in chart form:

Chart showing the huge discrepancy between predicted US CO2 emissions and America's obligations under the Copenhagen treaty

That's a chart from the Washington Post's Brad Plumer, who writes:

It would be fairly straightforward for the United States to keep its carbon dioxide emissions from rising between now and 2040. All Congress would have to do is keep most current energy policies in place…

[But] the United States would get nowhere near its climate-change goals if emissions simply flat-lined…

The Obama administration, after all, has set a goal of cutting greenhouse-gas emissions 17 percent by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050. That’s in line with what the IPCC has recommended the U.S. do to do its part for limiting global warming below 2°C.

It's a pretty devastating one-two punch: even with the best policies that America has implemented to date, emissions are projected to flatline; and they need to fall by 17 per cent just to hit the "easy" 2020 target, let alone the 2050 target.

There's another thing, as well: this is one of the only charts in which things get better in a recession. When demand plummets and factories reduce production, emissions fall correspondingly. That's the problem facing the European Emissions Trading Scheme at the moment, which planned future releases of emissions permits based on an assumption that, uncapped, emissions would grow indefinitely. Along came the recession, and that assumption was blown out of the water – with devastating results.

The real issue about fighting climate change isn't how to reduce emissions, in other words. We know how to do that: a recession as crippling at that in 2008/9, lasting for a couple of years, would bring them right down. Depending on which estimates you use for the damage inflicted by climate change, it might still be less painful than actually experiencing a 2˚C rise in global temperature.

The challenge is how to do it without inflicting that pain. A planned decarbonisation of the energy sector – switching investment from high- to low- and zero-carbon forms of generation – might be expensive, but the stimulative effects of such a building program could end up being a net positive even without the environmental benefits. And when it comes to borrowing for investment, there's little more future-proof than trying to ensure we don't all die.

It's less a horror film, and more like 127 Hours. We're James Franco, and the hopefully we get the courage to chop off our own arm before we have to start drinking our urine to survive.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Leader: The angry middle

As a sense of victimhood extends even to the middle classes, it makes Western democracies much more difficult to govern.

Two months after the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, it remains conventional wisdom that the referendum result was largely a revolt by the so-called left behind. Yet this is not the full picture. Many of the 52 per cent who voted Leave were relatively prosperous and well educated, yet still angry and determined to deliver a shock to the political system. We should ask ourselves why the English middle class, for so long presumed to be placid and risk-averse, was prepared to gamble on Brexit.

Populism has long appealed to those excluded from political systems, or from a share in prosperity. In recent years, however, its appeal has broadened to young graduates and those on above-average incomes who also feel that they have not benefited from globalisation. The sense of middle-class victimhood has become a major strand in Western politics.

In the United States, middle-class anger has powered support for Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. The former drew his activist base mostly from young liberals. And while Mr Trump’s success in the Republican primaries was often attributed to a working-class insurrection against “the elites”, exit poll data showed that the median yearly income of a Trump voter was $72,000, compared with a national average of $56,000. (For supporters of Hillary Clinton, the figure was roughly $61,000.) It is not the have-nots who have powered Mr Trump’s rise, but the have-a-bits.

In the UK, similar forces can be seen in the rise of Jeremy Corbyn. Indeed, research shows that three-quarters of Labour Party members are from the top social grades, known as ABC1. About 57 per cent have a degree.

Mr Sanders, Mr Trump and Mr Corbyn have very different policies, ideologies and strategies, but they are united by an ability to tap into middle-class dissatisfaction with the present order. Some of that anger flows from politicians’ failure to convey the ways in which society has improved in recent years, or to speak truthfully to electorates. In the UK and much of the West, there have been huge gains – life expectancy has risen, absolute poverty has decreased, teenage pregnancy has fallen to a record low, crime rates have fallen, and huge strides have been made in curbing gender, sexual and racial discrimination. Yet we hear too little of these successes.

Perhaps that is why so many who are doing comparatively well seem the most keen to upset the status quo. For instance, pensioners voted strongly to leave the EU and are the demographic from which Ukip attracts most support. Yet the over-65s are enjoying an era of unprecedented growth in their real incomes. Since 2010, the basic state pension has risen by over four times the increase in average earnings. 

Among young people, much of their anger is directed towards tuition fees and the iniquities of the housing market. Yet, by definition, tuition fees are paid only by those who go into higher education – and these people receive a “graduate bonus” for the rest of their lives. Half of school-leavers do not attend university and, in a globalised world, it is their wages that are most likely to be undercut by immigration.

However, we should not be complacent about the concerns of the “angry middle”. The resentment exploited by Donald Trump is the result of 40 years of stagnant median wages in the United States. In Japan and Germany, median wages have not increased in the past two decades. In the UK, meanwhile, the median income for those aged 31-59 is no greater than it was in 2007, and those aged 22-30 are 7 per cent worse off, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

To compound the problem, the wealthy keep getting wealthier. In 1980, American CEOs were paid 42 times the wage of the average worker. They are now paid 400 times as much. In the UK, the share of household income going to the top 1 per cent has more than doubled since 1979. Because of our hyperconnected, globalised media culture, we see more of the super-rich, fuelling feelings of resentment.

As a sense of victimhood extends even to the middle classes, it makes Western democracies much more difficult to govern, with voters oscillating between populists of the left and the right. The political centre is hollowing out. Rather than pander to the populists, we must do more to quell the politics of victimhood by addressing the root of this corrosive sense of grievance: entrenched inequality. 

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser