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

The same study shows time and again that the wealthy are causing climate change and environmental damage. In 2015 Oxfam released a report entitled “Extreme Carbon Inequality”, which found that the top 10 percent of people in the world are responsible for 50 percent of emissions, while the bottom 50 percent are responsible for only 10 percent. That same year, economists Thomas Piketty and Lucas Chancel cracked the data to reveal equally stark figures: the “top 10% emitters contribute to 45% of global emissions.”

More recently a broad study concluded, “The world’s prosperous citizens are responsible for most of the environmental impacts and are central to any future prospect to retreat to safer environmental conditions.” And last month a new study found that the wealthy – whom they identify as a “polluter elite” – are “At the heart of the climate problem.” The study recommends, “far-reaching lifestyle changes are also required if we are to avoid dangerous levels of global warming.”

It should come as no surprise that those on the left have used these studies as grist to the mill of class struggle. Here at Jacobinthese data have led to call-to-arms articles like “Only Class Warfare Can Stop Climate Change” and “To Save the Planet, Dispossess the Rich.”

So far so good. Yet these studies share a fatal flaw: they conceptualize the contribution of the wealthy to global warming and environmental degradation solely in terms of their “prosperity” or “consumption”. While the ‘lifestyle of the rich and famous’ is often blatant from an environmental standpoint, we need to look beyond their personal consumer choices to understand the true meaning of their contribution to climate change – and to understand the political challenge ahead. End catastrophic climate change.

The basis of these studies is data on household income and a derived relationship to spending patterns related to emissions or ‘carbon footprints’, so it’s no surprise that someone like Thomas Piketty, a world-renowned income inequality analyst, would use this data to create such a link inequality to carbon emissions.

But income is not the best way to understand inequality under capitalism. A plumber can 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 huge plumbing company.

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

A reasonable person might ask, “Okay, but so what?” Like a rich person possession a business and a lot of wealth, this enables them even higher consumption levels than can explain their income. It is famous that Jeff Bezos – despite being the richest person in the world – pays for itself an income of $ 81,840 per year. It’s his wealth which allowed him to purchase the largest mansion in Washington, DC, that area Reportedly has twenty-four bathrooms. And imagine the ecological footprint of heating it.

A pervasive assumption in these studies is that the wealthy are themselves “polluters” or “high emitters.” This assumes are the emissions related to consumption only their own. The studies focus on the behaviors of the wealthy – frequent flying, SUV driving, and carnivorous as all emission-intensive consumer behaviors. This intuitively makes sense in the lens of Carbon footprint accounting. Who else pollutes us than we do when we hit the accelerator in our cars and the exhaust comes out of the exhaust?

But what about the oil company that sold us the gasoline it burns to create those emissions? Placing 100 percent of the responsibility for emissions on consumers is one thing ideological trick of market exchange under capitalism. As consumers, we only confront raw materials and their prices. We feel free and make choices in this market. But what Karl Marx called the fetishism of market relations conceals the social relations of production and operation underlying goods such as cars, air flights and beef. Behind every act of individual consumption are huge corporations seeking and benefiting from our “choices”.

If we take a flight, why aren’t the airlines held responsible for the emissions? Aren’t they also “high-emitters” and part of the “polluter elite”? They are taking advantage get rid of this transaction and choose what to do or not to do to reduce air travel pollution. The consumer who buys a flight is just trying to get somewhere. Wealthy air travelers may fly more often than an average working-class air traveler, but even the wealthy consumer is not 100 percent responsible for their flight’s emissions.

The bulk the responsibility should rest with the owners of the capital, who primarily benefit from the high-issue activity. Yet, at the core of their methodology (and perhaps ideology), these studies rule out 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 benefit from our consumption emissions? I think it’s mainly because we don’t see them – as Marx joked, private control over capital and production hangs a sign on the door: “No access, except for business.”

The other big problem with a limited focus on consumption or lifestyle choices is that this represents a tiny minority of the terrible things the wealthy do to the climate and the environment every day. To understand how they really destroying the climate, we should not understand what their “lifestyle” is, but what they do for work.

Here’s a hypothetical example: Take an airline CEO. This person spends eight to 12 hours a day helping organize a fleet of thousands of planes that emit millions of tons of carbon dioxide every year. As CEOs, their earnings and stock options come primarily from this activity, planning and expansion of air travel as a commodity.

Now imagine our CEO going home in their SUV and eating a steak for dinner. Why is this activity the only one we focus on when we talk about “carbon inequality”? The SUV and steak are drops in the bucket compared to their day-to-day role as the titan of aviation capital.

Again, capitalist ideology is a darkening force. We tend to see freedom and politics only in terms of market and consumption. It’s true here, as Milton Friedman famously said, we are “free to choose”.

In what Marx called the “hidden production site”, there is no choice, and politics is off limits. Production is not only despotic organized, like a private dictatorship – it is purposefully focused on one goal: profit or “Accumulation for the sake of accumulation.” Our consumption choices have many different goals – to fulfill human needs (no matter how bloated).

Again, if we subject this manufacturing activity to “carbon accounting” for profit, we see that the main culprits of the climate crisis are not just affluent, wealthy consumers. It is the class of people who own, control, and benefit from the production of aviation, automobiles, steel, chemicals, and other carbon-intensive capital sectors. If we look at IPCC global emission data per sector it is the industrial sector of production that outshines all others (by far the largest sector, with 32 percent of global emissions and more than the transportation and construction sector combined!).

If we really want to understand a wealthy person’s contribution to climate change, we shouldn’t just look at their consumption – we should ask how they got rich in the first place. A Marxist analysis will always point to their ownership of property, their control of investments and, most crucially, their exploitation of labor as creating the conditions for their wealth and income. Not to mention them exploitation of nature – and in particular their tendency to emit free carbon in the feverish pursuit of profit – is also at the heart of what created their consumer lifestyle in the first place.

Simply put, what rich people do at home or in their cars or in their private jet pales in comparison to the exploitation of labor and the destruction of the earth that produces the money they enjoy.

The rich are indeed causing climate change – but not primarily for the reasons we often think. While their consumption and lifestyle choices may indeed be blatant, this is frankly the least of our concerns. Marxists must go to the root of their contribution to the climate crisis: property, investment and production.

This also makes clear our political task. It is not so much that we should kindly ask the rich to consume less or make “sweeping lifestyle changes”; we need to build political movements with the power to get higher taxes on the rich to fund a Green New Deal, and to decode and expropriate the carbon-intensive sectors they control, such as energy, food and housing. In other words, we have to face their ownership, wealth, and control over investments.

Comments are closed.