Rich People Are Destroying the Planet

Rich people have a carbon footprint 25 times the size of even the typical American. To tackle climate change, we need to start with fossil capital and the most affluent.

In the United States, those in the top decile of income account for half of household emissions, while those in the bottom half account for under 10 percent. (Greg Rivers / Unsplash)

Last spring, the Financial Times published a useful series of charts showing the correlation between CO2 emissions and the global distribution of wealth. The inequalities of the climate crisis are often, in many ways rightly, conceptualized as inequities between countries — particularly those of a few rich, carbon-intensive, industrialized economies and the rest.

But, as the FT’s data very clearly showed, there’s actually a stark and highly visible divide between a tiny minority of extremely wealthy people and everyone else. Taken as a whole, those in the global top 1 percent of income account for 15 percent of emissions, which is more than double the share of those in the bottom half. The extremely wealthy have only gotten richer over the past thirty years and, as the data shows, their carbon footprints have gotten much bigger as well.

When this perspective is narrowed to individual countries, the class divide vis-à-vis carbon emissions is truly astonishing to behold. In the United States, those in the top decile of income alone account for half of household emissions while the bottom half account for under 10 percent. While America is admittedly a pretty extreme case, the same basic pattern holds true across many large industrialized economies — a point which underscores that the divides within countries are often at least as important as the divides between them.

There’s a periodic genre of environmental writing which argues that the road to a greener future runs through a kind of radical collective penance. If we really want to save the planet, or so this line of thinking goes, we all need to give up things like uninterrupted electricity use. Yet the fact remains that the well-off, and especially the extremely wealthy, are far more responsible for climate change than the people who cut their lawns, serve them food, or produce the goods they buy and consume. As the Financial Times’ Stefan Wagstyl quite succinctly put it: “Almost everything the wealthy do involves higher emissions, from living in bigger houses to running larger cars and flying more often, especially by private jet. Eating meat comes into it, as does owning a swimming pool. Not to mention a holiday home. Or homes.”

It may well be the case that fighting climate change will require middle-class and even working-class people in wealthy countries to change their lifestyles in the decades ahead. Given, however, the extent to which the rich are disproportionately responsible for global emissions, and the widespread public consensus around raising their taxes, it would be both politically popular and sound policy-wise to emphasize redistributive solutions to the climate crisis.

The rich, in effect, need to be made much less rich if we’re going to reduce global emissions — and, if we want to fight climate change, taxing their wealth is both a moral and an environmental imperative.