Climate Change and Inequality

Anna Triponel

November 24, 2023
Our key takeaway: The climate crisis and the inequality crisis are inextricably linked. We cannot resolve one without tackling the other, and the exacerbation of one, heightens the other. Indeed, the richest 1% were responsible for 16% of global emissions, which equates to the emissions of the poorest 66% in 2019. The outsized emissions of the super-rich has adverse effects on efforts to tackle climate change and on people’s lives, health and wellbeing. For instance, annual global emissions of the richest 1% cancel out carbon savings for almost a million onshore wind turbines and can cause 1.3 million deaths due to climate-related heat stress. Marginalised groups, such as those living in poverty, women and Indigenous Peoples are disproportionately affected by rising inequality and climate change despite contributing the least to these twin crises and being the least prepared to tackle and rebuild after emergencies. Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) argues for a three-pronged approach to tackle the twin crises: (1) A radical increase in equality (Radically increase equality by reducing the wealth gap between the richest and the poorest people and countries); (2) A fast and just transition away from fossil fuels (Ensure a fast and just transition to clean energy, with a focus on securing safe, clean and accessible energy for all); and (3) A new purpose for a new age (Transform the current economic system from one based on continuous extraction and consumption benefitting only a few, to one based on centring the health and wellbeing of humanity and nature). The report issues a call to action: “Only by fighting and winning these two struggles together can we create a future for ourselves, for our children and for our planet.”

Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute published Climate Equality: A Planet for the 99% (November 2023):

  • The inextricable link between climate crisis and inequality: The report states that “[t]he world faces twin crises of climate breakdown and runaway inequality.” There are several ways in which climate change and inequality are linked, which include: (1) the richest people in the world are responsible for the greatest share of total global emissions. For instance, “the super-rich 1% were responsible for 16% of global carbon emissions, which is the same as the emissions of the poorest 66% of humanity (5 billion people)”in 2019. Indeed, “[t]hrough their investments and power over the economy, politics, policy and the media, the super-rich not only lock humanity into the continued use of fossil fuels, but also promote and support overconsumption and a carbon-based economy.” (2) the richest people and countries are insulated from the impacts of climate change, despite being largely responsible for historic, current and projected emissions. This means that they have the finances, and other resources, to better respond to the effects of climate change, which includes more secure housing, air conditioning, insurance and funds to rebuild after extreme weather disasters, access to education and politics; (3) the poorest people and countries are disproportionately impacted by climate change despite contributing the least to emissions and have fewer resources to insulate and rebuild post climate and weather catastrophes. For instance, they often live in flood-prone areas and poor-quality housing, and have little to no access to savings, welfare and social protection to help them when faced with an emergency. In addition, the “gap between the rich and the rest of humanity combines with other divisions such as gender, ethnicity and caste” so that women and Indigenous Peoples are among the most vulnerable groups in society with regards to climate change; and (4) a more equal society means better preparedness for climate and weather disasters regardless of socioeconomic status. According to the report, “[t]he death toll from flood is seven times higher in the most unequal countries compared to more equal societies.” This demonstrates “that more equal societies are better able to collectively manage risk, both by distributing it more fairly and by reducing the overall level.”
  • Three steps to an equal transformation: The report describes three objectives that stakeholders need to work towards to address the twin crises of climate change and inequality: (1) “A radical increase in equality”; (2) “A fast and just transition away from fossil fuels”; and (3) “A new purpose for a new age.” To reduce inequality, governments “must implement proven policies to dramatically drive down the gap between the richest and the rest.” To ensure a just transition to a less carbon-intensive economy, increasing taxes on the richest secures trillions of dollars, which can be “invested in public services, technologies and goods that are designed for and by the 99%, focused particularly on women and girls, racialised people and other groups who are most impacted.”This can include universal access to renewable energy, protection against extreme climate and weather events, and energy-efficient safe housing. The new tax revenue created must also flow to the Global South: “Trillions of dollars of this new tax revenue must flow to the Global South to fund a rapid and just energy transition, support communities to protect themselves from climate change and to provide compensation for the loss and damage caused by climate breakdown.” Last, but certainly not least, we must transform the purpose of our economic system such that it is “purposively redesigned and reimagined with a primary focus on the twin goals of human and planetary flourishing.” Our current system of continuous extraction and consumption is inherently unequal and exploitative.
  • A deep dive on the just transition: The report highlights how the energy sector is one of the biggest contributor to climate change, with it “accounting for around three-quarters of greenhouse gas emissions.”Therefore, “[s]witching from polluting fossil fuels to clean and renewable energy sources, promoting more efficient energy use and reducing energy consumption”are necessary to tackle the climate crisis. This transition to clean energy, however, must be done for the benefit of all, particularly marginalised groups, such as women and those living in poverty. It will provide them with “economic, social and environmental benefits, such as improved energy access, greater energy security, new green jobs, protection against volatile fuel prices, reduced pollution and decentralized, locally owned energy generation.” Looking at the climate crisis through a just transition lens offers us “an unprecedented opportunity to simultaneously reduce existing inequalities and achieve universal energy access” among other Sustainable Development Goals.

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