The wealthiest are causing climate change. If you are at the top, fly less. If you aren’t, get involved in policymaking!

August 5, 2017

What are the wealthiest doing to cause climate change? #1 is likely tilting the economic power in their countries toward their own wealth-production and away from the common good, including public education, health care, and clean energy.  

Excerpt from David Roberts on July 2017

Paul Hawken’s new project Drawdown draws on peer-reviewed science pointing to educating girls as one of the most effective and cost-effective actions that can be taken for climate change.

This 2015 study by Oxfam illustrates the importance of inequality to carbon emissions with two important graphics.

First, the global view, which reveals that the wealthiest 10 percent of the population produces almost 50 percent of “lifestyle consumption emissions.”

unequal emissions(Oxfam)

It is rarely stated this way, but it is true nonetheless: Climate change is primarily being driven by the behavior of the world’s wealthy.

The same disparity holds within countries, none more so than the US:

carbon inequality(Oxfam)

Striking, no? This shows that the top 10 percent of the wealthiest people in China emit less carbon per person than people on the bottom half of the US wealth distribution — again, inequality between countries — but it also shows that the top 10 percent wealthiest in the US emit more than five times as much CO2 per person as those on the lower half of the income scale.

Climate change simply does not fit well in the individual-choices frame

If you want to reduce your personal carbon emissions, godspeed. It’s not that big a mystery how to do it: Fly less, drive less, and eat less meat.

The obvious and most direct approach to addressing the role of individual choices in climate change is to tax the consumptive choices of the wealthy. For now, and for the foreseeable future, carbon emissions rise with wealth. Redistributing wealth down the income scale, ceteris paribus, reduces lifestyle emissions.

Discussing the role of individual choices in climate change without discussing income inequality is a mug’s game. It smears the responsibility evenly over everyone, when the responsibility ought to be concentrated where the emissions are concentrated: among the wealthy. And the only way to get at the individual consumptive choices of the wealthy, in any meaningful way, is through policy.

So if you’re rich, quit flying so much. But if you’re not, the best thing you can do to reduce carbon emissions is to get involved in politics and policymaking. That’s the only frame for climate mitigation that makes sense.


To be clear — and to forestall some of the scolding that this post has made inevitable — I should say that individual choices are much more meaningful with regard to local/regional environmental problems. Every individual, by driving less, eating less meat, and producing less consumer waste, can help reduce local/regional air and water pollutants and improve local/regional ecosystems. Being frugal with resources is worthwhile regardless of climate change. Also, those choices are good for your health.

It’s not that lifestyles don’t matter. It’s that climate change is utterly different in spatial and temporal scale from other environmental problems, and it is only the wealthy whose consumptive choices produce emissions that are meaningful relative to that scale.

Climate change just doesn’t fit the old do-your-part frame very well. But that frame is venerable and perfectly robust without climate change. Not everything has to be about climate.