Tackling Income Inequality to Combat Climate Change

BY Celeste Kauffman*


We know that climate change is a phenomenon with unequal impacts. The countries that bear the greatest responsibility for climate change have greater protection from its impacts, while countries that have contributed less are those that will feel (and are feeling) climate change’s impacts the greatest. The relationship between inequality and climate change at the national level has been studied less than at the international level. However, several activists and authors have begun to take this relationship seriously, demonstrating how economic inequality contributes to climate change and also creates challenges for efforts to address it.

A recent Oxfam study confirms that the wealth of the richest 85 people in the world is equivalent to that of the poorest 50 percent of the entire world’s population, or more than 3.5 billion people. At the national level, in 24 of 26 “economically advanced” countries in the Global North, the proportion of wealth held by the wealthiest 1 percent of the country has increased. For example, the same report shows that in Australia, the wealthiest 1 percent of the population holds as much wealth as the poorest 60 percent of the population.

In Latin America, the unequal distribution of wealth is even more pronounced, as evidenced by the high Gini indexes in the region.

At a social, political, and even economic level, we understand the negative and even disastrous consequences that such a high level of inequality can cause. But, what has been the impact of this inequality with respect to climate change?

First, there is growing evidence that societies with an unequal distribution of wealth are more harmful to the environment, exacerbating climate change. This is due in part to the consumption patterns of the wealthy. The wealthy have an extremely high level of consumption, which leaves a large carbon footprint. As Sam Pizzigati, mentions, the best example of this consumption pattern is private planes. The number of private planes has increased together with the concentration of wealth, and these planes emit six times more carbon per passenger than commercial airlines. (Fun fact: The richest 20% in the world account for 86% of total private consumption (household consumption of goods and services), while the poorest 20% account for only 1.3%).

In addition to the higher consumption levels of the wealthy, enormous income differences tend to produce societies that value consumption and accumulation of goods as a status symbol. This leads to exaggerated consumption throughout society, not only in the highest income brackets. This is why the average person in the US has a carbon footprint 12 times greaterthan that of the average person in India. According to Pizzigati, in more egalitarian societies, consumption is less socially important, and therefore, consumption patters are less exaggerated.

Second, it has already been demonstrated that those who suffer and will continue to suffer the strongest impacts of climate change are those who live in the poorest countries. At the same time, climate change has unequal effects among the rich and poor at the national level. For example, economic inequality means that in a drought, the wealthy can afford to pay more for water or food, while the poorest die from thirst, or spend a high percentage of their income on these needs, with less to spend on other needs, such as housing or medical care. It also means that the wealthy can afford adaptation measures, such as migrating to areas that are less affected by climate change, while the poor are trapped in areas battered by environmental disasters, or migrate in much less favorable circumstances. This difference in adaptation capacity means the rich have fewer incentives for the rich to address climate change.

Third, economic inequality is one of the main reasons for which international negotiations to slow climate change have been a complete failure, and a nearly insurmountable obstacle for the adoption of measures to combat it at the national level. This is due to the simple reason that in countries with high economic inequality, governments, which must represent all of their citizens, are coopted by the interests of the wealthy. In such countries, in spite of public clamor to take climate change seriously, the power of the wealthy often eclipses this outcry. And the wealthy have often obtained their wealth thanks to their participation in industries that are environmentally harmful: dirty energy, extractive energies, and companies that depend on excessive consumption. Thus, they use their disproportionate political power to prevent reforms and programs that protect the environment but reduce their profits, such as alternative forms of clean energy.

If we want to combat climate change, we must start by combatting economic inequality at the national and international level. If we do not take this challenge seriously, we not only condemn the poorest among us to suffer the consequences of an environmental disaster that they did not create while the rich avoid its consequences, but we also trap ourselves in a situation in which our governments are incapable of taking the challenge of climate change seriously.


*Celeste Kauffman is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice, and Society (Dejusticia).

Photo credit: Oxfam International