There’s nothing fair about climate change. We’re all affected by it—but not equally. It’s a reality we’re reminded whenever a disastrous flood hits or water restrictions arise. The poorest among us often struggle the most to make it to the other side of such climate-fueled events. This is despite the fact that the poorest have done the least to create the climate monster knocking at our doors.
A new report lays out just how vast the disparity is between the world’s rich and the poor. It underscores how the wealthiest are driving the climate crisis—and the need for legislators to do something about it.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re diving into the facts. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. Sorry for the missed edition last week. I was sick, but I’m back with some jaw-dropping statistics this week. The climate crisis requires systemic change, but it also demands individual change from those of us consuming the most. Every item we buy, every plane we fly, and every rocket ship we take to the sky comes at a huge cost to future generations. They deserve more than a doomed planet.
We’re living in unprecedented times. Firenados are, indeed, a phenomenon that now exists on Earth. Soon, trillionaires may be, too. The world is growing hotter while the rich are becoming richer. The COVID-19 pandemic, which toppled the global economy and sent unemployment rates skyrocketing, wasn’t even enough to decimate the ever-growing profits of the rich.
Now, a new report shows what a rise in income inequality means for the planet.
Published last week, the report from the World Inequality Lab looks at data from across the globe to assess income, wealth, and contributions to the climate crisis. Over 100 researchers spent more than four years crunching this data, which tells a story of climate injustice. You see, the more money a person has, the more likely they are to consume and emit greenhouse gases.
Think about it: Rich people often live in mansions that require a ton of energy to keep lit up and warm. They may also own multiple cars and actively avoid public transportation because, hello!, they’re rich. They fly several times a year because why not? There are even some bizarrely baller people who decide flying first class isn’t enough. No, they want to own private jets and maybe even a spaceship because who didn’t dream of visiting space as a kid?
Still, they’re not the only problem. When you look at income and emissions levels globally, you may be shocked to discover that your middle-class lifestyle with a modest air conditioner, annual vacation abroad, and grid-connected home makes you among some of the wealthiest people in the world. We often take for granted how luxurious—and carbon-intensive—some of these amenities are (especially to folks in the Global South).
“The difference between the people who are in that top 1% are often frequent fliers,” said Clare Shakya, director of the climate change group at the International Institute for Environment and Development, who wasn’t involved in the report. “When we’re talking about these issues in climate talks, we have to point out that we’re among them because these climate talks happen in different countries, and we all have to fly twice a year to be at them, which immediately makes us among the biggest emitters.”
The numbers show how these lifestyles can lead to an imbalance among who’s fueling the heating of our planet. The report found that while humans, on average, emitted some 7 tons of greenhouse gases a year, per 2019 data, the top 1% are responsible for 121 tons a year. As for the 0.01%? They emit over 2,700 tons of greenhouse gases a year. And their emissions are only worsening: Since 1990, per capita emissions of the 1% grew by 26% while the 0.01 percenters (the richest of them all) saw per capita emissions spike by 110%.
“There are some system changes that are needed, and we should keep the pressure on the governments to do that—but a lot of it is around personal choices and the super wealthy.”
One of the grossest portrayals of this disparity is space travel. While taking vacations to the moon still sounds like a scene straight out of science fiction for most of us, it’s looking more and more likely for those with endless dollars to spend. Earlier this year, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos took a short trip to orbit as part of his latest venture into space tourism. These interstellar thrills come at a cost, though: An 11-minute space flight may emit up to 1,100 tons of greenhouse gases per passenger.
Consider that alongside what people in other parts of the globe experience. In sub-Saharan Africa, average annual greenhouse gas emissions are closer to 1.8 tons. In North America, we’re looking at 23 tons per capita. That’s three times the world average. The report found a close link between per capita income and emissions, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Where countries source their energy has a lot to do with the population’s carbon footprint. For instance, the emissions from America’s poorest are comparable to what middle-class folks emit in Europe. That has everything to do with U.S. infrastructure rather than household consumption.
“Having lower emissions is something entirely within our capabilities,” Shakya said. “There are some system changes that are needed, and we should keep the pressure on the governments to do that—but a lot of it is around personal choices and the super wealthy.”
So, what are governments to do about this? Well, they need to begin tracking these individual emissions to start. Information is key to finding a solution. They also need to develop policies that center the most vulnerable and marginalized among us. They can’t simply raise the cost of fossil fuels without considering how it’ll affect their poorest. That being said, a carbon tax could help, authors of the report argue.
Shakya agrees with a caveat. “A lot of interventions can be done… but they need to really look at who is going to feel that is making their lives unaffordable and how they can be supported,” she said. That may look like adding a benefit alongside these difficult changes. For instance, why not increase pensions or social safety nets at the same time you cut a fossil fuel subsidy? That way, if folks are paying more for gas, their costs are decreasing or their income is increasing elsewhere to balance the financial impact. Where’d you go, Green New Deal?
We must all be mindful of how we consume and the consequences of those choices, but we also need support from our leaders to guide us toward the right choices. At the moment, our leaders seem more preoccupied with joining the 1% than helping the rest of us survive the climate crisis. As for the rest of us, we need to shift how we think about consumption—and shame the rich out of their dangerous behavior. That won’t be easy, but that doesn’t make it impossible.