An Unequal Country Can’t Fight Climate Change

Today, April 22nd, 2019, is Earth Day. Right now, according to a coalition of the most knowledgeable scientists from across the world, we have less than 11 years to cut our emissions in half if we have any hope of stopping the most devastating, nature-collapsing consequences of climate change. While scientists and politicians (rightly) talk about renewable energy sources, carbon capture technologies, and climate mitigation, there’s a problem that must be simultaneously addressed if we have any hope and saving our only home: income inequality.

The climate crisis is inextricable from inequality, both in its causes and effects. While the rest of the world begins to feel the devastation of climate change in worsening hurricanes, wildfires, floods, sea level rises, and pollution, the ultra rich are contributing the lion’s share of carbon emissions while buying out of the consequences. Meanwhile, the most vulnerable communities both in the US and around the world contribute the fewest emissions, but are on the front lines of an apocalyptic climate future if our present inequality continues unabated.

In the same year that we learned just 100 corporations contribute 70% of global emissions, we also saw concrete examples of money buying a different future – from Kim Kardashian and Kanye West hiring private firefighters to protect their $50 million home in LA while thousands of Californians lost everything, to reports that millionaires are buying up land in New Zealand and installing luxury “climate-proof” bunkers. The New York Times even reported recently that private security companies are offering their corporate clients a climate protection detail to safeguard resources like water and food against the desperate masses if just a little bit more warming occurs.

You’d be forgiven for thinking this sounds like a Mad Max plot line, and not the future that lays ahead of us. But the science on climate change, and the data on income inequality, don’t lie.

If we continue on our current track, where wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a precious few, we risk entering a vicious cycle that we can’t escape. Those news stories show that climate change can further drive inequality, but key studies now show that the reverse is also true: the more unequal a country becomes, the more likely it is to experience biodiversity loss, a canary in the coal mine for climate devastation. This phenomenon can be more obvious in developing countries, where the richest 2 percent often own over 60 percent of the arable land, setting the stage for intra-country resource battles that pit corporate profits against environmental needs. But even in the US, we see the corrupting influence of wealth and power against our climate needs in the likes of former Cabinet officials Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinke, who used their offices to enrich the fossil fuel industry at the expense of American public lands.

That’s precisely why the UN has identified climate change and income inequality as the two main risks the world faces today, and has called for countries around the world to devote “heightened attention” to the convergence of the two factors. That convergence relays a dire message for a country like ours that leads the global economy and contributes the second-highest percentage of global emissions: there is no solution to climate change that does not include closing the inequality gap.

In that landmark IPCC report, all the experts agreed that if countries are going to successfully halve global emissions, citizens must feel that “each country’s fair share of that global effort must be divided fairly among its communities, households, and individuals.”

Fair is the key word here – if we create a fairer world now, then we have a shot at a better future for us, for our children, and for our grandchildren after them. Making a fairer country is a moral imperative in its own right for the American people living today, but it is also clear now that it is an intergenerational imperative, too. And it’s one we can – and must – act on now.


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