Wealthy people are both the cause and the solution to climate change

September 30, 2021 - Karessa Weir

Wealthy people are the cause of a huge amount of global warming but are also the ones with the most ability - and responsibility - to fight climate change, MSU Sociology's Dr. Tom Dietz and others have reported in a new paper for the journal Nature Energy.
"The global affluent, the richest 10%, the richest 1%, are responsible for most of the pollution that is changing the climate and the biosphere. They have the responsibility, and also have some of the opportunity, to bring about the change we need," said Dietz, University Distinguished Professor of Sociology.
The new research, released Sept. 30, identifies how people of high socioeconomic status have a disproportionate impact on global greenhouse gas emissions - and therefore an outsized responsibility to facilitate the progress in climate change mitigation.
Along with Dietz, the article "High socioeconomic status people are key to locking in or rapidly reducing energy-driven greenhouse gas emissions" was written by first author Kristian S. Nielsen, University of Cambridge;  Kimberly Nicholas, Lund University; Felix Creutzig, Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change in Berlin; and Paul C. Stern, Social and Environmental Research Institute.

“High socioeconomic status people aren’t just those with more money, but those with better social networks. Their connections can enable them to influence behaviors and policies to help mitigate climate change – and we need to find ways to encourage them to do this,” said Nielsen, a postdoctoral researcher in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Psychology. "

High socioeconomic status is a much broader spectrum than the "super-rich" that are often targeted for change and includes everyone with an annual income of $109,000 or more in the U.S, who also have increased access to both financial and social resources.

Currently, people with high socioeconomic status has a disproportional climate influence by using more than average amounts of fossil flues and energy-intensive consumption. They tend to travel more, live in larger houses, purchase more goods and own more land. The researchers have calculated that those in the top 10 percent of income globally are responsible for 40-60 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions.

Conversly these are the same people least likely to be impacted by the adverse effects of climate change. 

"These striking inequalities in greenhouse gas emissions from consumption marks these people as major drivers of climate change," the researchers state.

But the ways in which the wealthy impact the climate can also be the same ways in which they can make a large difference in the fight against climate change. Researchers named five specific roles where high socioeconomic status people can positively impact climate change:

  • Consumer: Reduce air travel. More than 50 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from flying are caused by just 1 percent of the world's population. By making climate-friendly travel choices such as driving electric cars, people with higher socioeconomic status can reduce their carbon footprint and become better role models. Other actions include using mass transit, walking and biking. The same principle works for switching to renewable energy, building solar panels on homes and downsizing their properties.
  • Investor: Shift investments away from fossil fuel companies both as individuals and as corporate investors. By investing in low-emissions companies and mutual funds, wealthy people can press companies to lower emissions and drive structural change.
  • Citizen: Advocate for climate change action through their social networks, elected officials and professional organizations. Use greater access to politicians to lobby for legislation and policy moving away from fossil fuel. 
  • Organizational participant: Use their positions of authority in business and professional settings to select suppliers with less adverse practices and work to change the culture of businesses. Use influence as alumni of elite universities and schools to encourage change.
  • Role Model: Change the perspective of what it means to live "the good life." Embrace veganism and share on social networks. 

 “Our study focused on people of high socioeconomic status because they have generated many of the problems of fossil fuel dependence and associated climate change, which affect the rest of humanity. And they are also well positioned to do something about it,” said Nielsen.

The article stresses that these are not the only important approaches to climate change mitigations and other efforts, including those by local and indigenous groups, are equally important. 

"But our focus here is on those who have generated most of the problem. No single strategy alone can 'solve' the climate problem, but the actions of high socioeconomic people can have a great impact."

The timing of the action is also important, Dietz said. 

"The current meeting of world leaders in Italy, and the upcoming meeting in Glasgow are producing many calls for action. We need to change the system. We need to get corporations to act.  We need to get governments to act. But how do we do that?  How can we bring about change?" Dietz said.

"There are many pathways.  But the global affluent, the richest 10%, the richest 1%, are responsible for most of the pollution that is changing the climate and the biosphere.  They have the responsibility, and also have some of the opportunity, to bring about the change we need.

The affluent can cause change in multiple ways.  As consumers, they can reduce the pollution they create. But that is only the start.  As consumers, as workers and as investors they can pressure corporations to change their actions.  And as citizens they can pressure government. 

Of course, the less affluent, who bear the brunt of the damage from environmental change, often have crucial insights and perspectives, and we need to listen to them.  But the global affluent have great power in the current system, and so they have great responsibility to act for change."