Rich People Are Fueling Climate Catastrophe — But Not Mostly Because of Their Consumption

Rich people have enormous carbon footprints. But the fundamental problem with their climate impact isn’t what they consume — it’s that they own the means of production, and it’s extremely profitable for them to pollute.

Production activities at Boeing's 777 production line in Everett, Washington. (Boeing)

The same study keeps coming out to show that the rich are causing climate change and environmental breakdown. In 2015, Oxfam released a report entitled “Extreme Carbon Inequality” that found the top 10 percent of people in the world are responsible for 50 percent of emissions, while the bottom 50 percent are only responsible for 10 percent. That same year, economists Thomas Piketty and Lucas Chancel crunched the data to reveal similarly stark numbers: the “top 10% emitters contribute to 45% of global emissions.”

More recently, a wide-ranging scientific review argued that “consumption of affluent households worldwide is by far the strongest determinant and the strongest accelerator of increases of global environmental and social impacts.” And just last month, a new study found that the wealthy — who they identify as a “polluter elite” — are “at the heart of the climate problem.” The study recommends, “far reaching changes in lifestyles are also required if we are to avoid dangerous levels of global heating.”

It shouldn’t be surprising that those on the Left have seized on these studies as grist for the mill of class struggle. Here at Jacobin, this data has led to call-to-arms articles like “Only class war can stop climate change” and “To save the planet, expropriate the rich.”

So far, so good. Yet these studies share a fatal flaw: they conceptualize the rich’s contribution to global heating and environmental breakdown solely in terms of their “affluence” or “consumption.” While the “lifestyles of the rich and famous” are often egregious from an environmental standpoint, we need to look beyond their personal consumptive choices to understand the true significance of their contribution to climate change — and to understand the political challenge ahead of us for actually halting catastrophic climate change.

The basis of these studies is household income data and an inferred relationship with spending patterns associated with emissions or “carbon footprints,” so it is no surprise that someone like Thomas Piketty, a world-famous analyst of income inequality, would use this data to link such inequality to carbon emissions.

But income is not the best way to understand inequality under capitalism. A plumber could have the same income as a college professor. The plumber could also have the exact same income if they ran their own plumbing business or if they worked for a massive plumbing corporation.

For Marxists, class and inequality has to do with your relationship to the means of production. More broadly, class is less about how much money you make and more about what you own and control. For the vast majority of us, we only own our labor power to sell on the market to live. For the rich, it is their ownership of property, businesses, and monetary wealth itself that makes them so powerful in a capitalist society.

Consumption-Emissions Aren’t Just Our Own

A reasonable person might ask, “Okay, but so what?” If a rich person owns a business and lots of wealth, this allows them even higher levels of consumption than their income can explain. Famously, Jeff Bezos — despite being the richest person alive — pays himself an income of $81,840 per year. It is his wealth that allowed him to purchase the largest mansion in the Washington, DC, area that reportedly has twenty-four bathrooms. And imagine the carbon footprint of heating it.

A pervasive assumption among these studies is that the rich are themselves “polluters” or “high emitters.” This assumes the emissions associated with consumption are solely their own. The studies focus on the behavior of the rich — frequent flying, SUV-driving, and meat-eating as all emission-intensive consumer behavior. This makes intuitive sense within the lens of carbon footprint accounting. Who else is polluting but us when we press the gas pedal in our cars and emissions come out the tailpipe?

Yet what about the oil company that sold us the gasoline that is burned to create those emissions? Placing 100 percent of the responsibility for emissions on consumers is an ideological trick of market exchange under capitalism. As consumers, we only confront commodities and their prices. We feel free and make choices in this market. Yet what Karl Marx called the fetishism of market relations obscures the social relations of production and exploitation underlying commodities like cars, air flights, and beef. Behind every act of individual consumption are massive corporations seeking and gaining profit from our “choices.”

When we take a flight, why aren’t the airlines held responsible for the emissions? Are they not also “high emitters” and part of the “polluter elite”? They are the ones profiting off this transaction and choosing what to do or not do in order to reduce pollution from air travel. The consumer buying a flight is only trying to get somewhere. Rich air travelers may fly more often than an average working-class air traveler, but even the rich consumer isn’t 100 percent responsible for their flight’s emissions.

The bulk of responsibility should be on the owners of the capital who profit off the high-emitting activity in the first place. Yet at the core of their methodology (and perhaps ideology), these studies foreclose such an understanding of carbon responsibility, inequality, and class power.

A private jet. (John McArthur / Unsplash)

Why do we ignore the owners and producers who profit from our consumption emissions? I think it’s mostly because we don’t see them — as Marx quipped, the private control of capital and production hangs a sign on its door: “No admittance, except on business.”

And I’d guess the writers of these studies themselves — professional-class academics and scientists — are trying very hard to reduce their own carbon footprints and implement “far reaching changes in their lifestyles.” For the virtuously low-carbon professional class academic, it is seductive to think that the only solution for climate change is getting the rich to do the same.

If Someone Is Rich and Consumes a Lot, Ask Them How

The other major problem with a narrow focus on consumption or lifestyle choices is that this represents a small minority of the terrible things the rich do every day to the climate and environment. To understand how they really wreck the climate, we need to understand not what their “lifestyle” is, but what they do for work.

Here’s a hypothetical example: take a CEO of an airline company. This person spends eight to twelve hours per day helping to organize a fleet of thousands of planes that emit millions of tons of carbon dioxide per year. As CEO, their income and stock options are primarily derived from this activity, planning and expanding air travel as a commodity for sale.

Now imagine our CEO goes home in their SUV and eats a steak for dinner. Why is this activity the only one we focus on when talking about “carbon inequality”? Surely the SUV and steak are drops in the bucket compared to their everyday role as a titan of aviation capital.

Once again, capitalist ideology is an obscuring force. We tend to only see freedom and politics in the realm of the market and consumption. It is here where, as Milton Friedman famously put it, we are “free to choose.”

In what Marx called the “hidden abode of production,” there is no choice, and politics is off-limits. Not only is production organized despotically, like a private dictatorship — it is single-mindedly directed toward one goal: profit, or “accumulation for accumulation’s sake.” Our consumption choices have much different goals in mind — fulfilling human needs (however inflated).

Here again, if we subject this activity of production for profit to “carbon accounting,” we find the main culprits in the climate crisis aren’t simply affluent rich consumers. It is the class of people who own, control, and profit from the production of aviation, automobiles, steel, chemicals, and other carbon-intensive sectors of capital. If we look at IPCC global emissions data by sector, it is the industrial sector of production that dwarfs all others (the largest sector by far, at 32 percent of global emissions and more than the transportation and buildings sectors combined!).

If we really want to understand a rich person’s contribution to climate change, we shouldn’t just look at their consumption — we should ask how they became rich in the first place. A Marxist analysis will always point to their ownership of property, their control over investment, and, most crucially, their exploitation of labor as creating the conditions for their wealth and income. Not to mention, their exploitation of nature — and, in particular, their propensity to emit carbon for free in the feverish pursuit of profit — is also at the core of what created their consumptive lifestyles in the first place.

Put simply, what rich people do at home or in their car or on their private jet pales in comparison to the exploitation of labor and the wrecking of the earth that generates the money they enjoy.

The rich do, indeed, cause climate change — but not primarily for the reasons we often think. While their consumption and lifestyle choices can indeed be egregious, it is honestly the least of our worries. Marxists should go to the root of their contribution to the climate crisis: ownership, investment, and production.

This also clarifies our political task. It’s not so much that we need to ask nicely for the rich to consume less or implement “far-reaching changes in their lifestyle”; we have to build political movements with the power to win higher taxes on the rich to fund a Green New Deal, and to de-commodify and expropriate the carbon-intensive sectors they control, like energy, food, and housing. In other words, we need to confront their property, wealth, and control over investment.