Aidex Voices

As COP25 draws to a close, AidEx explores the link between extreme weather, wealth and poverty.

We are aware climate change has increased inequality and continues to affect the poorest and most vulnerable populations. Rarely discussed is the question of who holds more historical responsibility.

Speaking to climate change researcher Dario Kenner who has sought to fill the dearth of data on this topic, we take a look at whether global warming has been largely caused by inequality driven by a dominant minority of industrial fossil fuel conglomerates and polluter elites.

There is a clear correlation between the uses of fossil fuels to produce energy since the Industrial Revolution with the greenhouse gas emissions causing global warming. With an overall global consumption of fossil energy that has increased more than 1300-fold since this period, greenhouse gas levels are well above the natural cycle of the last 800,000 years.

There is no question that rises in temperature over the last 200 years have been manmade.

Who are the polluters?

Unsustainable overconsumption

The UN’s promotion of sustainable consumption over several decades reflects how much of the focus has been on ordinary people’s role in global warming. Kenner however believes the focus on individual responsibility has not been an effective enough strategy, and although behavioural change is vital, lifestyle changes are not shifting at the scale or speed sufficient for change.

His attention instead is on the “polluter elite” – extremely rich individuals whose net worth, luxury lifestyle and political influence all rest on wealth that is derived from investments in polluting activities. This group he says “hold more historical responsibility for the Anthropocene than other citizens because of their investments in industrial activity and consequent benefits via dividends.”

Kenner argues we must turn our heads to look at the wealthy decision-makers at highly polluting companies who shape the consumption options for everyday citizens. These individuals use their political power to lobby governments like the US and UK, and influence policies by funding political parties in favour of a fossil fuel ecosystem which ultimately restricts consumption options for the population in order to continue their “addiction” to and overall dependency on fossil fuel lifestyles.

The industrial polluter elite

In a 2013 study conducted by Richard Heede, results showed almost two-thirds of historic carbon dioxide and methane emissions can be attributed to 90 entities.

A more recent analysis by the researcher at the Climate Accountability Institute revealed that just 20 global corporations can be directly linked to a third of all greenhouse gas emissions in the modern era, with 90% of emissions attributed to these companies being use of their products, such as petrol.

Over half of all emissions traced to carbon producers between 1880 and 2010 were produced since 1986 when climate risks of fuel combustion were well established, demonstrating how companies were polluting consciously and increasingly for profits, despite awareness of the devastating ecological impact.

“Oil, natural gas and coal companies [like Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP and Shell] have benefited for decades from hundreds of billions in government subsidies incentivising fossil fuel development, as well as regulatory preferences and other taxpayer-funded costs”, states Heede.

The inequality gap contradiction

With economic growth tied closely to historic energy use, there has been a double-edged sword of energy access being an essential component in improving living standards with prosperity driving CO2 emissions.

Despite some countries reducing extreme poverty however, the rise in extreme wealth has meant economic gaps have also grown vastly. Ultra-high net worth individuals, otherwise known as the richest 1% or ‘super-elite’, are reflective of a wildly uneven global transformation. Income inequality has surged in developing markets like Russia and India, and much of the industrialised West.

The rise of a global plutonomy is described by Chrystia Freeland as one in which “the rich display outsize political influence, narrowly self-interested motives, and a casual indifference to anyone outside their own rarefied economic bubble.”

Who is most affected by changes in climate?

Greenhouse gases are mostly emitted from high-income countries. The US is responsible for 26% of global cumulative greenhouse gases, whilst Europe is for an additional 22%. Meanwhile the entire continent of Africa contributes just 3.8% and yet the region is most vulnerable to their effects.

The charity Save the Children reports climate shocks have left millions in Africa facing hunger, with 33 million people at emergency levels of food insecurity due to cyclones and droughts.

What can we do?

Disputing the argument that poorer countries can prosper only with fossil fuel energy, Kenner advocated a robust plan for a Just Green Transition. “Fossil fuels need to stay in the ground” because mixing with renewables simply is not enough.

Global development is being acutely threatened. After a decade of steady decline, hunger is on the rise again, affecting 1 in 9 people. Climate change according to the World Bank could push a further 100 million into poverty by 2030 and it is predicted there may be up to 140 million climate migrants by 2050.

In the developed world, during extreme weather disasters it will be those who cannot afford to buy their way to safety who are left in at-risk areas as we see the onset of climate gentrification.

Whilst the international community has strong leaders like the UN Secretary General António Guterres saying the right things such as ending fossil fuel subsidies, Kenner believes it ultimately comes down to what happens at national levels.

“Fossil fuel companies have very effectively captured the UNFCCC talks by lobbying national governments which has weakened negotiations, for example this is one factor in why there are currently voluntary commitments under Paris agreement”. He says youth climate strikers protesting around the world can be helpful in bringing about such change.

This is why government action must be uncompromising and not subject to wealthy influence if we are serious about changing consumption options for all. Kenner advises phasing out and restricting highly damaging consumption like private get flights if we are to prevent a sixth mass extinction.

The cause of global warming can largely be attributed to fossil fuel conglomerates that have consciously polluted for profits for over half a century.  The growth of these industries, whilst raising overall living standards, have also engendered a super elite where total wealth is up but disproportionately amongst the richest as countries like the UK which endures a growing divide.

When the powerful elite have clearly been such significant drivers of the ecological crisis that we face, there is a huge onus on them to not just account for their damage but most critically mitigate the inevitable catastrophe facing the planet and humanity. If inequality has caused the climate crisis, then working to create a system based on equality perhaps can be the only way to save us.