Inequality is growing about as fast as the world is warming. That’s no coincidence, according to the latest analysis of the global wealth gap by Oxfam. As the bank accounts of the rich grow, so too does the environmental devastation they wreak through ravenous consumption: The richest 62 people have as much money as half the world’s population. And that lopsided distribution of capital is throwing the world’s ecology off-balance as well.
The Oxfam report on the wealth gap should be read in tandem with a separate report issued to inform the debate around the Paris climate summit. The accord the conference produced centered on a deeply inadequate voluntarily baseline goal to cap the global temperature rise at 2 degrees Celsius. The compromised goal rich nations negotiated stemmed from a combination of corporate greed and political cowardice.
According to Oxfam researchers, “the poorest half of people on the planet”—the 3.5 billion who share the same amount of wealth as the richest five dozen—“live overwhelmingly in countries that are considered the most vulnerable to climate change.” By contrast, richer countries “tend to be far better prepared to cope with” climate disruption. Besides simply having more economic resources to restore damaged property, Oxfam reports, “While 91 percent of farmers in the US have crop insurance to cover losses in the event of extreme weather, only 15 percent of farmers in India are covered, 10 percent in China and just 1 percent or less in Malawi and most low-income countries.”
According to Oxfam’s analysis, the poorest half of the population contributes the least to climate change. Meanwhile, the rich do far more damage to the environment more than the poor ever could, simply because their lifestyles demand drastically more energy. Half of global carbon emissions emanate from the wealthiest 10 percent of the population, while the poorer half of the world’s population emits just 10 percent of emissions.
This does not mean that poor people are natural environmentalists—certainly the Global South contributes emissions through inefficient industrial technology and farming techniques. Likewise, relatively poor countries like China and India have internal inequalities in both polluting consumption and wealth between rich and poor citizens.
Overall, however, Oxfam’s message is straightforward: The twin phenomena of climate catastrophe and catastrophic inequality are intertwined and mutually compounding. “Lifestyle consumption” translates into threats of rising oceans drowning coastal communities in the Arctic and Pacific Islands, and stokes the smog belching from coal-fired power plants, choking poor black neighborhoods across the US. The lifestyles of the wealthy are killing the poor while smothering the planet. And policy-makers of the wealthiest nations control the overwhelming share of the world’s capital, while driving the most destructive systems of economic production and predation. Meanwhile, environmental activists are coalescing around the principle that the only way to comprehensively address climate change is to confront global economic injustice.
“Sustainability” was the buzzword of corporate sponsors in Paris, but, according to Oxfam researcher Timothy Gore, radical environmental change must come the ground up. So you can’t fix economic inequality through direct wealth transfers that do not protect against environmental harms. We’ve already witnessed the potential for “emerging” economies like China and India to achieve phenomenal growth together with phenomenal pollution in the form of smog-laden air and the ravaging of arable land and waterways. Going forward, the goal should be to “leap frog” technology so that economic advancement and environmental goals can be tackled at once.
Ed Dolan of Economonitor made a somewhat pessimistic critique of Oxfam’s analysis, suggesting it may underestimate poor countries’ emissions by not accounting for their relatively dirty production methods, including older factories and coal power. But Gore says those factors overall do not offset the main trend of rich countries’ contributing the biggest emissions burden. And they similarly face the biggest responsibility for providing solutions by leading targeted technological and infrastructural transitions.
Gore comments via e-mail:
Attempts to tackle inequality must now take account of our planetary boundaries, not least the global carbon budget. That means that we need policies—and critically a politics to enable them—that both lift up the incomes and realize the rights of those currently at the bottom of the global and national income distributions without increasing their environmental footprints, and which also level down the environmental footprint of those people at the top of those distributions.
To that end, different socioeconomic conditions require different environmental investments: poor countries in Latin America, Asia, and Africa may need improved “access to renewable energy and sustainable agricultural approaches,” Gore says. Those who will suffer the most from economic disruption, the poor communities who also happen to be the least polluting segment of the population overall, will need the social and income supports that can democratically facilitate energy transition.
Progressive labor groups now see such measures as not just necessary to restrain climate change but critical to winning the working classes’ political “buy-in.” During COP21, a coalition of trade unions and environmental groups issued a statement on a Just Transition, demanding “retraining and redeployment opportunities, as well as secure pensions for older workers.” And throughout the process, governments must maintain a commitment to “guarantee social protection and human rights,” which incorporates environmental protections as well.
With the right political elements in place, Gore argues,“tackling inequality and climate change can be effectively pursued in tandem.” And ultimately it is the wealthy who will determine the nature of the change and how painful it will be for the 99 percent. If the goal is to rebalance the world’s wealth, we also need a new approach to rebalancing its ecology.