The global rich and global climate change

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

The great economic historian Adam Tooze wrote an eye-opening article about how the global rich (the richest 10%) are the chief drivers of climate change.  What he should have noted is that, at least in the immediate future, they will suffer the least from living on a hotter planet.

Tooze noted that their consumption causes nearly half of the world’s carbon emissions, and the global middle class (the next 40%) cause nearly all the rest.  The global poor (the bottom 50%) are responsible for hardly any, yet they will be the hardest hit.

He said we need to think less about which nations are the chief cause of the problem, and more about the different economic classes.  Global warming has been affected even more by the super-rich (the top 1%) in the OPEC nations and in China than the super-rich in North America.

China accounts for half the increase in global emissions from 1990 to 2015.  One-sixth of the total global increase comes from China’s rich and one third from China’s middle class. 

The betterment of material living standards in China during that period is one of the world’s great positive achievements.  But it also, according to Tooze, is a big contributor to what may be the world’s greatest problem.

It is not just that the richest 10 percent consume so much.  They are the ones who make the investment decisions.  This is true not only of private investment decisions, but of government investment, to the extent that it is financed by borrowing.

Add to that the fact that the richest 10 percent are the dominant political class in most countries.

Adam Tooze did not spell out the implications of this, but they are important.

The richest 10 percent, along with the global middle class, will try to meet the challenge of global warming by investing in alternative technologies that will maintain their material standard of living.

The problem is that making windmills, solar panels or electric vehicles is energy-intensive and uses up non-renewable resources.  Probably there is a net benefit at some point; I’m not qualified to say. The point is, you have to burn a lot of fossil fuels to create the alternatives to fossil fuels. 

What the global rich, and the global middle class, are not considering, is austerity for themselves.  Nobody that I know of advocates giving up air travel, for example. 

I include myself in this.  I don’t know whether I’m in the global rich class, but I’m certainly not a member of the global poor.  It would be very hard to give up my creature comforts.

If we won’t change, and we probably won’t, then change will be forced upon us.  The complicated global system that maintains the affluence of some of us will fail in the long run, and we’ll lose our high material standard of living, whether we like it or not.


Climate, carbon and class by Adam Tooze on his Chartbook Newsletter blog.  A lot of interesting information.  Worth reading in full.

How the rich plan to rule a burning planet by James Plested for Red Flag.  An insightful Australian view from 2019.

Can We Have Both Industrial Civilization and a Habitable Planet? by Thomas Neuburger for God’s Spies.  Few people can imagine that industrial civilization could come to an end, and few of us who can think through the implications of a post-industrial civilization.

Goldman Sachs keeps lights on during Superstorm Sandy, 2012.

A note on economic and social class.

Economic and social class are complicated subjects.  The Occupy Wall Street protesters in 2011 pointed out that the benefits of economic growth were all going to the upper 1 percent of income earners, and the other 99 percent, if you lump them all together, were falling behind.

Then there was a more complicated analysis.  The top 1 percent or 0.1 percent were getting most of the gains, but the next 9 percent or 9.9 percent also were doing well.  The first group supposedly consisted of plutocrats whose income came from ownership of financial assets; the second were a professional-managerial class (PMC), whose income came from positions in organizations based on educational qualifications.

I now realize that even though there is a connection between sources of income and economic class, it is not a simple one.  There are people on all economic levels who depend for their income on investment income and people on all economic levels whose earning power depends on educational qualifications.

I myself fall into both categories.  I have savings invested in mutual funds, and I benefit from the federal government’s propping up of financial markets.  I have a college education, and I benefited from this when I was in the job market.  So you could make the argument that my interests line up with both the plutocrats and the PMC.

Thomas Piketty and other economists note that below the top 10 percent, this is middle 30 percent or 40 percent who are treading water.  They’re not gaining, but they’re not losing.  I think the number of people bottom group, the people who are falling behind, is increasing in the USA, but this isn’t true of all countries—China, for one.

I still say there is a predatory economic elite who are parasites on society, but this judgment is based on looking at their actual behavior, and how the economic and political structure, which is largely their creation, rewards them at the expense of those who create actual value and do necessary work. 

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2 Responses to “The global rich and global climate change”

  1. Alex Page Says:

    I’m sure it’s easy to say this glibly now, but I could happily give up some material luxuries if it came in tandem with the other freedoms of a decent eco-socialist system. ‘You can’t have these imported ingredients, fly, etc – but reasonable housing guaranteed, four day weeks meaningful work in rewilding etc, democracy not plutocracy…’ sign me up. I’m deeply skeptical of the ‘fully automated luxury communism’ meme, but the kind of adjustments we need, although certainly ambitious, needn’t be an austere life as such IF they come with a good social/economic system.


  2. philebersole Says:

    For personal reasons, I’ve given up driving a car and, at least for now, traveling by air. These would be easier to do if the I didn’t live in a society organized around the assumption that everybody owns a car and travels by air.

    I might be willing to give up living in a free-standing house and move to a one- or two-room apartment if everybody else in my social circle did so. So, yes, it would be possible to be happy with many fewer material possessions than I have.

    Whether I would be happy living below the median global income for a single person is not a question I can answer.


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