We often talk about how climate change exacerbates social and economic inequality, but rarely do we consider the opposite: that inequality itself can be a driver of climate change.
“What’s missing from the conversation is what our inequality crisis is doing to our planet,” said Susan Holmberg, a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and author of a new report that shows how unequal societies inflict more environmental damage than more economically even societies. “One key topic that is still overlooked is how environmental degradation and climate change are themselves the toxic byproducts of our inequality problem,” Holmberg said.
Her analysis calls for a greater understanding of the link between climate change and inequality. Many people who live in low-income communities, for example, cannot afford to retrofit their homes to make them more energy efficient, meaning they use more power than necessary, generating more pollution.
“We just weren’t comfortable talking about the way inequality functions in our society, which has changed since the global financial crisis,” Holmberg said. The 2008 crash showed that severe inequality creates a more fragile economic system and that the global elite hold enormous political power.
“People assume that raising incomes will increase personal consumption and, as a result, also increase carbon emissions, which would do little to alleviate climate change,” Holmberg said. “But there are so many more mechanisms at play, including how power disparities hobble communities from protecting, for example, their air or their water.”
President Trump is currently trying to roll back federal climate protections. At the same time, his administration is pushing for social policies that would favor the wealthy. His plans for tax reform and healthcare would exacerbate existing inequities.
“Watching Trump derail so much progress is discouraging to say the least, but there is so much momentum out there for creating just climate solutions,” Holmberg said. “This is a time for people to get creative about how we can leverage the challenge of climate change to solve our inequality issues.”
To protect the environment, “we need good jobs, we need a solid tax base, we need a good healthcare system, and we need criminal justice,” she said.
“Since the Reagan administration, the left has been hobbled by a supposed environment versus jobs/economy dichotomy,” Holmberg added. She cited economist James Boyce — her dissertation advisor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst — as the first to propose that lopsided income distribution can imperil the environment. Boyce theorized that the rich have the power to pollute the environments of poorer people.
“I first heard him talk about this relationship 15 years ago, and it was one of those epiphany moments,” Holmberg said. “We tend to think about conservation from the perspective of our ‘footprint’ — that is, how much damage are we individually doing to the Earth? Boyce changed the question to: ‘How are we treating each other, and what are the environmental effects from these dynamics?’”
Gregory Mikkelson, associate professor at McGill University’s school of environment, has studied the impacts of inequality on biodiversity loss. He and his colleagues found that, in the United States and in other countries, the number of species threatened increases with income inequality. He wrote: “Our results suggest that economic reforms would go hand in hand with, if not serving as a prerequisite for, effective conservation.”
Holmberg, an economist, believes inequality is a byproduct of Wall Street’s preoccupation with short-term growth. She said that “public companies that only prioritize next-quarter share prices — and pump up those share prices through stock buybacks — are an enormous driver of inequality.” She added that “corporate short-termism, by its very definition, is bad for the environment because the same shareholder incentives that skew companies away from investing in workers, capital, and innovation discourage them from investing in, for example, green retrofitting of existing buildings, sustainable production practices, and even compliance with environmental regulations.”
Rachel Cleetus, lead economist and climate policy manager for the climate and energy program of the Union of Concerned Scientists, who was not involved in the study, said that the report reiterates what many environmental justice advocates have been saying for years, that financial regulation, progressive tax policy and social insurance programs should be regarded as integral to climate change policy.
“They will not directly pull carbon out of the atmosphere, which we need to do so urgently, but these kinds of progressive economic policies may be a necessary foundation for a sustainable society,” said Holmberg, who believes inequality belongs at the center of our national conversation about climate change. “I think people — particularly people who care about the environment and economic injustice — need to learn about it, and incorporate it into their analysis.”
“That was absolutely the intention of this report,” she said, “to get the word out and get people thinking and talking about the fact that inequality drives environmental harm.”
Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.