Inequality fuels the climate crisis

A man silhouettes in front of the logo of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland
Associated Press/Markus Schreiber

One of the largest assemblies of personal wealth in human history is taking place this week in Davos, Switzerland, where the world’s super-rich and political elite are convening for five days of conversation on “improving the state of the world.” While climate change will be a key theme, few participants will recognize that it’s being fueled by the unequal concentration of wealth in their own hands. Some billionaires, including Bill Gates and Elon Musk, focus on technological solutions driven by private capital flows. They do not question the role that inequality plays in constraining governments’ ability to respond to climate change in the public interest.

But it’s not just billionaires who ignore the role of inequality in driving greenhouse gas emissions. In response to recent proposals to tackle climate change and inequality together via a Green New Deal, many climate experts have criticized the coupling of these issues. Distinguished climate scientist and professor Michael Mann, for instance, has written that he worries “saddling a climate movement with a laundry list of other worthy social programmes risks alienating needed supporters (say, independents and moderate conservatives) who are apprehensive about a broader agenda of progressive social change.”

In our new peer-reviewed paper, we explain the many ways that inequality makes climate action more politically challenging, with the result that businesses and households are allowed to keep spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

First, concentrated wealth means concentrated political power, and the power to obstruct climate policy. Globally, the super-wealthy — especially fossil-fuel companies and emissions-intensive industries — use their excess wealth to lobby against ambitious climate policy, finance political parties that block climate regulations, deceive the public about the causes and implications of climate change, and repress public protests against their activities — even violently.

Second, poverty and financial insecurity pose a major barrier to effective climate action. People fear that climate policies such as carbon taxes will increase their energy, fuel and food bills. And workers in carbon-dependent industries are understandably fearful about their jobs.

Third, inequality erodes the social foundations of democracy, making it harder to develop collective responses to climate change. Economic inequality leaves governments vulnerable to corruption, fostering the belief among citizens that political elites serve only themselves and the wealthy. Citizens then become cynical about government and mistrustful of politicians, which makes it difficult to build public support for the ambitious long-term policies that are needed to tackle climate change.

Moreover, inequality is socially divisive, sewing mistrust among groups and making people less willing to sacrifice for the common good. Yet, addressing climate change requires people to cooperate on a scale probably unprecedented in human history — whether on local projects to cut emissions or as part of social movements demanding change at state and federal government levels.

What this shows is that there is a powerful “climate case” for tackling inequality. So, while Davos attendees — and some climate advocates — may scoff at the Green New Deal’s focus on tackling climate change and inequality together, our research shows why this dual focus makes for sound policy. Progressive ideas like mandatory living wages; stronger anti-trust laws; pro-union reforms; and taxes on wealth, pandemic profiteering and the windfall profits of Big Oil should not be dismissed as a “laundry list” but embraced as central elements of a new climate-policy paradigm.

Tackling climate and inequality together also makes for good politics. Of course, it will not be easy. It will mean taking on some of the most powerful and well-financed entities in the world. But the broad-based progressive agenda enables coalition-building among a wide range of groups beyond the environmental movement. And numerous surveys have found that key components of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey’s (D-Mass.) Green New Deal enjoy broad-based popular support.

Trying to tackle climate change without also addressing inequality is like swimming against the tide. That’s why the Davos summit is unlikely to make much progress. It’s up to the rest of us to build the political coalitions needed to tackle these two great challenges together, through a Green New Deal.

Fergus Green, Ph.D., is a lecturer in political theory and public policy in the Department of Political Science, University College London. He is contributing author to the UNEP Production Gap Report. Follow Green on Twitter: @fergusgreen

Noel Healy, Ph.D., is a professor in the Geography and Sustainability Department, Salem State University. He is contributing author for the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report. Follow Healy on Twitter: @DrNoelHealy

Tags Climate change Davos Davos World Economic Forum Finance Michael Mann

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