This year marks the 30th anniversary of the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, the first comprehensive assessment on global warming by the world’s scientific community. Yet over the past 30 years, humanity has done more harm to the planet than in all the centuries that came before them combined.

You read that right. The world produced 784bn tonnes of carbon dioxide from human activities from the dawn of the industrial revolution until 1990. Since 1990, At the same time, right around the time the landmark was passed in the US. 

Despite never knowing with more certainty that continued business as usual consumption and production of fossil fuels, deforestation, and industrial agriculture are leading us towards ecological collapse, we are still making the problem worse at an ever increasing rate.

Two large brown wooden sets of doors open on to a narrow pavement, and the doorways are stacked with old televisions; the roof above this building has corrogated iron slates, a satellite dish, and the sky is blue. Photo taken from the middle of the road
38/40 Excess of information and too much exposure to media content are considered among the main ailments of this century and result in a decrease in the capacity to reflect critically on the received information. From the series Excessocenus © Cristina de Middel and Bruno Morais

How did that happen?

I could fill a book as deep as the rising seas with the complete story, but the short version is pretty simple: the system rich people built to make them even richer worked. A slightly longer version, in three short chapters, is below. It’s not a hard story to tell, but it’s a difficult story to hear.

published in September by economic anthropologist and The Correspondent contributor Jason Hickel found that when considering “excess” carbon emissions (that is, carbon emissions above the per capita limit necessary for maintaining the 350ppm “safe level”), dangerously accelerating climate change is almost entirely the fault of rich countries. Collectively, the Unit­ed States, Cana­da, Europe, Israel, Aus­tralia, New Zealand and Japan are responsible for a shocking 92% of warming beyond 350ppm. The US alone is responsible for 40%.

This isn’t a huge surprise. For centuries, those countries’ wealth was built from colonialism, with the now bearing the brunt of the climate emergency. In colonising the world’s lands, oceans and ecosystems, those countries

The entirety of westernised economic growth has been built on exploitation, extraction, and imperialism – and mostly, on fossil fuels. Even countries that are “doing well” in the western hegemony have societies built on destructive premises. The Norway model of socialism, for example, is

This is by design. While climate change is a planetary dystopia, it’s also a capitalist utopia. And its leaders wanted this to happen.

Figure of a person standing in a star shape on a sandy beach with the ocean and trees behind him, wearing shorts, and he holds a big sheet of transparent thin plastic film against his body; only his head and tops his hands are uncovered, and he has his eyes closed
11/40 This past decade saw the start of many initiatives to control the domestic use of plastic bags around the world. The measures go from bans to educational campaigns and investment in research on alternative materials, but we still use 1,5 billion of them per day. From the series Excessocenus © Cristina de Middel and Bruno Morais

Chapter 1: How Clinton, Bush and Obama set the world up for climate failure (and Trump continues it to this day)

As the leaders of the country most historically responsible for climate change during the era where most of its damage occurred, presidents Bill Clinton (1993-2001), George W Bush (2001-2009), Barack Obama (2009-2017) and Donald Trump (2017-now) are perhaps the four people most responsible for the climate emergency. From our historical vantage point, they’re leaders who were invested in the status quo and presided over a system that prioritised short-term thinking over long-term survival.

Bill Clinton, and his vice president Al Gore, set the tone for these three decades As the millennium (and his presidency) came to a close, the US failed to even meet its voluntary targets of stabilising greenhouse gases at 1990 levels.

31/40 – Fossil Fuels. Negotiations for the definitive replacement of fossil fuels by renewable energy sources by 2050 are progressing slowly but firmly. From the series Excessocenus © Cristina de Middel and Bruno Morais

George W Bush then worked to undo the predecessor to the Paris climate agreement, A former oil man, he and enabled – in one case by making the results seem less clear than they were.

Barack Obama, who devoted much of his second term to climate change, kept an “all of the above” policy when it came to the fossil fuel industry, as a net exporting oil producer all in the name of Even years after leaving office, His are almost painfully too little, too late.

Now, Donald Trump is the world’s only climate denier head of state, expanding Obama’s legacy by while simultaneously These rollbacks alone will add 1.8bn tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere over the next 15 years, What Trump has done would not have been possible without the US presidents that came before him.

Put together, the impact of these four presidents on climate is simple: US carbon emissions have actually risen since 1990, even though the science was already crystal clear.

10/40 The collapse of the south pole ice caps as a result of global warming will lead to significant sea level rise before the end of this century. According to records of previous similar contexts from more than 125,000 years ago, the sea level could rise between 64 - 114cm until year 2100 in the worst emissions scenario listed by the UN. From the series Excessocenus © Cristina de Middel and Bruno Morais

Chapter 2: The normalisation of hyper-consumption

Yes, unless your surname is Bezos or Branson, chances are there’s someone on the planet who has a bigger carbon footprint than you. Nevertheless, there’s a good chance you – just like me – are in the global 10% of wealth, or at least close to it. Collectively, the global 10% – those making more than $38,000 per year – were responsible for more than half of all emissions over the past 30 years.

It’s worth pointing out here that excessive consumption is a systemic problem, and the concept of climate guilt over individual contributions was in part Carbon footprints matter, of course, but what matters most is the trillions of dollars of public subsidies that have been wasted on directly propping up the few companies that have engineered our fossil-fuelled economies to promote wasteful lifestyles for personal profit. 

05/40 – Globalisation has made it possible to produce clothing at increasingly low prices to the point where many consumers consider clothing to be disposable. The growing use of man-made textiles has a big impact on the environment, especially the use of common fibres like polyester by the fast fashion industry. From the series Excessocenus © Cristina de Middel and Bruno Morais

Most of those luxury emissions were spent on transportation – flying in airplanes and driving in cars – activities that are too expensive for the vast majority of people on Earth to do more than occasionally. The shorthand term for this is and it’s inseparable from

The path of China over the past 30 years is a great way to illustrate this. For the first two-thirds of the time period, from 1990 to 2010 or so, China’s rapid expansion in emissions was the most important factor in growing global emissions. Some of that expansion was due to exports to the US, Europe and other rich consumers, but the bulk of it was to build massive cities and lift its people out of poverty. At its peak in 2008, the emissions embodied in China’s exports only accounted for about

Since then, China’s per capita emissions have risen to higher than the global average, and wealthy individuals in China have adopted air travel and luxury consumption patterns just as wealthy individuals have in the US and Europe.

Recently, China’s pledge to become zero carbon by 2060 has drawn praise from international climate activists, just as Biden’s pledge to work towards a zero carbon US by 2050 or Europe’s law mandating zero carbon by 2050. But these goals are still too distant and must be coupled with short-term mandates that are equally as ambitious and grounded in the science of rapid change. Chinese citizens have demanded change, and it seems like

02/40 The electronics industry generates approximately 41 million tonnes of garbage per year, 90% of which is illegally traded to be discarded incorrectly in emerging countries. From the series Excessocenus © Cristina de Middel and Bruno Morais
06/40 The increase in electricity consumption and the waste resulting from obsolete installations and appliances has led to the development of new forms of energy in developed countries, but in emerging areas the obsolete model is repeated and embraced by default. From the series Excessocenus © Cristina de Middel and Bruno Morais

Chapter 3: Decades of organised climate denial and delay

Lastly, what made our carbon emissions grow instead of shrink was a massive climate denial and delay strategy. For decades, the fossil fuel industry has employed marketing firms – including those of major publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post – to create advertisements designed to trick people about the reality of climate change. Those “merchants of doubt”, as Harvard historian Naomi Oreskes calls them, were so effective their strategy trickled into the media itself, with article after article giving false equivalence to climate sceptics as time gradually ticked away.

What made our carbon emissions grow instead of shrink was a massive climate denial and delay strategy

More recently, the denial of climate science has given way to the denial of climate impacts, or even more precisely, the denial that “far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”, like the kind the IPCC says are now necessary to avoid dangerous climate change are possible. than imagine the transformative change it will take to preserve life as we know it.

In total, the practical effect of advocating for incremental changes is to delay the reality that only massive changes have a hope of repairing this problem in the time we have left. Delaying climate action only benefits those of us who would rather keep our harmful lifestyles.

As the graphic novelist Douglas Rushkoff has argued, and From a global perspective, sometimes the people in those escape pods are us.

33/40 Children are hardest hit in contexts of socio-environmental degradation. Improvements in child protection rates around the world are mainly due to collective action involving governments, civil society, the private sector, and more low-cost interventions. From the series Excessocenus © Cristina de Middel and Bruno Morais

Where the past 30 years have left us

As a species, we’ve long moved beyond of the threat climate change poses to us. This isn’t an accusation or a judgement, it’s a fact. There are hundreds of millions of people on Earth for whom the reality and consequences of climate change were always crystal clear.

27/40 Scientists have already announced a new geological era caused by human activity on the planet: Anthropocene. The intensive use of fire is still one of the main causes of diminution of green areas and global warming. Over 3.5 million km2 of burned areas were detected in the year 2000, of which approximately 80% occurred in areas described as woodlands and shrublands. From the series Excessocenus © Cristina de Middel and Bruno Morais

After 30 years, we know the story about climate change very well.

The business-as-usual story goes like this. Things are bad. Actually, it’s worse than you think. But we can save the world if we just have more solar panels.

What’s hardly ever repeated are the actual words of the scientists who know the most about what it will take to solve this problem. We’ve reached a moment where That’s all the more reason to be radical.

shows that our planet hasn’t warmed this fast in tens of millions of years. We’re fooling ourselves if we think we know exactly what will happen if we keep knowingly making the problem worse. In the bluntest statement possible: climate change is an existential threat like no other our species has ever faced.

The for-profit model of saving the world is not going to work because “saving the world” isn’t the goal of people in power. Their goal merely is endless growth on a finite planet.  

So what’s the end game here if we keep on this path? It’s Elon Musk-style survival for the few, enormously wealthy people who can cruise the solar system in luxury.

Or, revolution.

About the images After decades of exploitation, many African countries have become target markets for low-quality and highly toxic products with no planning to manage the consequences.

EXCESSOCENUS by Cristina de Middel and Bruno Morais investigates the excessive development of current society, which is the main creator of absolute inequality among citizens.

With 40 photographs they aim to visualise the effects of macro-economics into the daily lives of Africans. They did so by staging colourful scenes made in collaboration with people in Mozambique.
Look at the project here

Dig deeper

Drone photo of a land. On the right a shanty town, on the left a residential aerea. Why climate change is a civil rights battle Climate disasters are not ‘natural’ – they’re human made. If we want to fight climate change, we first need to tackle inequality and racism. Read my article here Our world is built for profit. Let’s build one that protects us instead We live in a society where it’s easier to get a Michelin-star meal delivered to our doorstep than it is to get a medical mask that protects our nurses and doctors. And it’s designed that way. But we can change it for the better, just as we can change ourselves. Read Nesrine Malik’s article here