Why We Can’t Solve the Climate Crisis Without Addressing the Wealth Gap

Billionaires' excesses at the expense of our living world

Why We Can’t Solve the Climate Crisis Without Addressing the Wealth Gap
Photo by Viktor Ritsvall on Unsplash

“Jeff and I really are focusing on the long-term commitment to climate, and we’re extremely optimistic about it. Ten billion [dollars] is just the beginning,” Lauren Sánchez declared in a recent Vogue interview, when asked how she reconciled the huge carbon footprint she and billionaire fiancé Jeff Bezos share with her passion for environmental philanthropy.

She felt, as Vogue contributing editor Chloe Malle noted, “undaunted.” What an interesting choice of words. Undaunted, as if the carbon footprint of the billionaires of the world is an inconvenient consequence of wealth, one that can be overcome with just the right amount of pluckiness and determination.

It was a slick sidestep to a serious question, one that a more rigorously journalistic publication would not have let slide. In 2023, climate justice has been recognized as a critical part of the response to the environmental crisis we are currently facing. And in order to tackle this issue, we have to confront the reality that a handful of billionaires in the world have carbon footprints that are one million times higher than the average person – the other 90% of the humans living on this precariously overtaxed planet.

Neither Malle nor Sánchez seemed to think it was important enough to note that Jeff Bezos has been named by UK-based Oxfam along with American researchers as the third biggest carbon footprint on the planet (as far as humans go). There are twelve billionaires on the list, and admittedly, Bezos’ almost two million tons of carbon emissions look decidedly conservative in comparison to Bill Gates and Carlos Slim, who respectively nabbed the second and first place “honors,” both with emissions exceeding six million tons.

Why might this be important to mention? Why do the carbon emissions of billionaires matter when it comes to climate change?

Here’s the issue: A small group of people, the ultra-wealthy, are creating a disproportionate amount of climate breakdown, which in turn, disproportionately affects 90% of the world’s population.

In looking at this, we can see that, on a practical, surface level, there’s already an issue there, perfectly summarized by Oxfam:

“Extreme inequality and wealth concentration undermine the ability of humanity to stop climate breakdown. Very rich people emit huge and unsustainable amounts of carbon and have an outsized influence over our economy.”

But there’s a secondary, perhaps even more important issue at play here: an ethical issue. Oxfam’s inequality policy advisor, Alex Maitland, has vocalized his objections to billionaires’ unchecked carbon emissions, calling it unfair and immoral. “The world’s poorest communities, those who have done the least to cause climate change – those who are least able to respond and recover – are the ones who are suffering the worst consequences.”

What are these billionaires doing that is creating their huge carbon footprints? You might guess their private jets and superyachts – and you’d almost be right.

Koru, Bezos’ 417-foot, $500 million-dollar superyacht generates over 7,000 tons of carbon emissions each year – 447 times the carbon footprint of the average American. As Sánchez pointed out in the Vogue article, it can run on wind power, which she says is "magical." I guess we’re supposed to pretend that we don’t know it’s probably rarely run on wind power or pretend not to notice the carbon emissions made by the sauna, pool, and theater. Or how about just heating and cooling the vessel?

And interestingly, no one mentions that superyachts apparently have “companion vessels” that sail with them – slightly smaller superyachts for backup, and storage for all those pesky amenities that don’t quite fit on the main vessel. You know, things like jet skis and a helicopter, which can be found on Koru’s companion vessel, Abeona.

And just to be clear, those 7,000 tons of carbon emissions that Koru generates don’t include the amount generated by Abeona. At half the size, would we estimate it to be 3,500 tons per year? Or does the helicopter add a few thousand extra tons?

But believe it or not, these luxuries are not even the main cause of the carbon emissions created by the 125 wealthiest people in the world. No, that honor belongs to their investments, which account for 70% of their carbon emissions. As Maitland points out, “They tend to favour investments in heavily polluting industries, like fossil fuels.” In fact, only one billionaire in this study has invested in renewable energy. (That says a lot, doesn’t it?)

Nafkote Dabi, Climate Change Lead at Oxfam, puts it all into perspective with this statement: “These few billionaires together have ‘investment emissions’ that equal the carbon footprints of entire countries like France, Egypt or Argentina.”

Of the 183 corporations that make up this “billionaire investment pool,” only 29% are working to reduce their carbon emissions, and only 19% are committed to net zero emissions (removing carbon emissions to cancel out the emissions they do create).

What we have here is worse than just a free pass for the ultra-wealthy to disproportionately contribute to and accelerate climate crisis. That free pass is only free for them. The 90% of humans outside this elite group are the ones who are paying for this.

How do we solve this complicated issue? How do we implement sustainable, systemic climate justice that will protect the other 90%?

Dabi has a clear plan of action, which is outlined in Oxfam’s call to action:

  1. Tax the ultra-wealthy, which could raise up to $1.4 trillion that could be distributed to the countries most affected by climate change.
  2. Implement regulations that make it harder or less attractive to invest in corporations that are contributing to environmental degradation.
  3. And of course, develop rigorous regulations for those corporations that will require them to be more accountable for their contributions to climate change and implement a carbon neutrality deadline of 2050 or sooner.

The billionaires have a different idea, however. A large number of them have founded nonprofit organizations that tackle environmental and social justice issues. Bill Gates, the number two largest offender in carbon emissions, has been vocal and active in addressing climate change through philanthropic endeavors, particularly in the tech and energy sectors.

However, critics have noted that all these ultra-wealthy philanthropists are typically entrenched in the idea of “tomorrow’s innovations” rather than tackling our current problems. Further, philanthropy wielded by the ultra-wealthy doesn’t solve the problem that they, themselves, are creating – and in fact, it only entrenches global wealth inequality, a foundational issue.

We can see this in action when Sánchez blithely brushes off the concern about her and Bezos’ enormous carbon footprint, and why she’s “undaunted.” She goes on to share her excitement about the Bezos Earth Fund, an initiative to carry out Bezos’ promise to spend $10 billion of his own fortune in order “to preserve nature, fight inequities caused by climate change, decarbonize the economy, and improve data programs and analytics to better track the economics and the outcomes of the new green economy.”

But words like this from these billionaires who are allegedly committed to climate change don’t really ring true when you look at their carbon footprints. The cognitive dissonance is a bit alarming when Bezos flies in for a party on Bill Gates’ superyacht in a helicopter a few days before flying to the COP26 Climate Summit on a private jet.

To put it simply, wouldn’t the best investment of that $10 billion be to enact immediate carbon neutrality at Amazon?

But when you get right down to it, that’s the point, isn’t it? Those who have disproportionate amounts of wealth and the right to do with it whatever they want, even to the detriment of 90% of the world’s population, the last thing they want to do is actually solve the problem. Creating foundations and nonprofits that throw a few million dollars here and there is a much safer solution for them.

As Sánchez noted, they can continue to be “undaunted” by climate change issues facing us today. And, indeed, they should be. Because for the most part, they won’t be affected by it.

The rest of us will be picking up that bill.

 You can find more of Y.L. Wolfe's work on her website or on Medium.

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