The Rich Are Different. Their Wealth Is a Climate Disaster.

New research shows how the world’s richest people fuel the climate crisis.

Posted Oct 08, 2020

In his 1926 short story, “The Rich Boy,” F. Scott Fitzgerald offers an insider view of a young man who grew up in an ultra-wealthy family, had an Ivy League education, and “accepted without reservation the world of high finance and high extravagance, of divorce and dissipation, of snobbery and of privilege.”

The narrator, a friend of the rich boy, identifies himself as a man with much less luck and little means. That point of view, designed to beguile readers of the middle-brow magazine in which the story was serialized, begins like a field guide to another world: “When we pick up a book about the rich, some instinct prepares us for unreality. Even the intelligent and impassioned reporters of life have made the country of the rich as unreal as fairy-land.”

The narrator then frames his character study with the famous definition of his subject: “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different.”

The extreme wealth and income inequality that Fitzgerald observed in the 1920s diminished through the Great Depression and post-war New Deal programs. But then neo-liberal policies over the last 50 years have allowed inequality to roar back, reaching disparities comparable to the 1920s.

The rich are still different, though in ways that exceed the rapaciousness they exhibited in Fitzgerald’s time. Today we can see evidence on every continent showing how their efforts to enrich their class have placed everyone else (human and non-human) at risk of suffering from ever more destructive climate disasters.

Recent research published by Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) shows that between 1990 and 2015, 49 percent “in absolute emissions was due to the richest 10%” of the global population, within which “the richest 5% alone contributed over a third (37%).” The study also reports that almost all remaining emissions were caused by the “middle 40% of the global income distribution,” concluding that the “impact of the poorest half of the world’s population was practically negligible.”

Over that 25-year period, while “a clear majority of the emissions of those top global income groups were still from people living in North America and Europe,” changes in the “geographic composition of the emissions associated with the consumption of individuals” marked an increase “share of emissions … of the richest 10% and 1% …located in rapidly growing and industrializing countries such as China and India.”

The Oxfam-SEI report says these large carbon footprints result from consumption patterns of the wealthiest citizens across all regions—a mix of highly polluting air travel, high emission vehicle travel, outsized housing (including heating and cooling), and purchases of manufactured products, food, services, and clothing.

Oxfam-SEI’s comparative approach to intra-national class inequalities diverges from studies that examine broader international disparities. Of course, we can say the US and EU are the biggest emitters, and we wouldn’t be wrong. But the Oxfam-SEI research shows that class differences in all developed and developing economies correlate significantly with carbon footprint differences. It’s the global rich, not the vast majority of people, who are most responsible for the unyielding climate crisis. As one of the authors of the report told The Guardian, “The global carbon budget has been squandered to expand the consumption of the already rich, rather than to improve humanity.”

Apart from The Guardian, Forbes magazine, and The Times (UK), other mainstream periodicals ignored the publication of Oxfam-SEI’s important and well-researched study. Perhaps, as we suggested in an earlier column that cited “The Rich Boy,” billionaire media owners have class affinities that normalize editorial silence on issues of class, income inequalities, and carbon emissions linked to luxurious lifestyles. They may prefer that the public think without making class distinctions in order to divert blame for the climate crisis on all of humanity instead of the world's wealthiest people—a media-made world for the rich "as unreal as fairy-land."

We can see how this class contradiction plays out in competing ideas for climate action. From the point of view of wealthy capitalists, it seems the solution is to generate as much income as they can before regulators come looking for payback. According to a member of the Securities and Exchange Commission, wealthy corporations don’t like to reveal their climate crisis plans, while the US government has a hard time enforcing existing laws. For the very wealthy, obfuscation is a rational business practice. They get rich and live extravagantly by covering up their carbon footprint.

For the rest of us, it seems obvious that we need a sustainable political economy, one that will reduce income inequality and eliminate poverty. The status quo allows affluent consumers to drive consumption trends that encourage the less affluent (the middle 40 percent) to aspire to higher levels of consumption—the elusive lifestyles of the rich and famous—causing increasing carbon emissions. While climate shaming poor people so they consume less has failed as a disciplinary strategy, hope remains that expanded carbon taxation and tax credits will stem the rise in emissions without changing the fundamentals of the current political economy.

Government responses to income and wealth inequality have, for far too long, been based on a regulatory model that socializes risks while privatizing rewards. The effects of this stance have been starkly demonstrated by the pandemic and ensuing health care crisis, as the rich have profited during the pandemic at the expense of poor and working-class people.

If we can begin to eliminate or drastically reduce intra-national income inequality on all continents, we stand a good chance of rapidly reducing carbon emissions and saving the planet. We must acknowledge that when the rich get richer, the atmosphere gets hotter. Yes, the rich are different, but it’s a difference we can do without.