Skip to main content

The climate crisis is a class crisis

To tackle the threat of environmental disaster, the super-rich must dramatically change their lifestyles, writes CLAUDIA WEBBE

WITH the highest-ever temperatures recorded in the Arctic Circle, and with just 3 per cent of the world’s ecosystems remaining intact, we cannot delay in taking action to save our planet and future generations. 

Yet sadly it is not true that we are all in this crisis together — or that we are all equally culpable when it comes to contributing to environmental breakdown. 

The world’s wealthiest 1 per cent produce twice as much carbon emissions as the poorest 50 per cent, according to a report published this week. 

According to the Cambridge Sustainability Commission on Scaling Behaviour Change, the wealthiest citizens, the “polluter elite,” must make the most dramatic changes to their lifestyles to keep the 1.5°C target alive. 

To meet this target, seen by scientists as a crucial tipping point after which environmental devastation will be locked in, the richest 1 per cent of the global population needs to reduce their emissions by a factor of at least 30 by 2030, while the poorest 50 per cent of humanity could increase their emissions by three times their current level. 

The report also found that the total growth in absolute emissions was due to the richest 10 per cent, with the richest 5 per cent alone contributing over a third. 

The report concludes that a combination of individual and systemic efforts to dramatically reduce the carbon footprints of the richest and to build affordable and low-carbon infrastructures around housing, transport and energy for all to access offers the best way forward. 

Its sensible recommendations include frequent flyer levies, bans on selling and promoting SUVs and other high-polluting vehicles, reversing the recent government announcement to cut green grants for homes and electric cars and building just transitions from fossil fuels by supporting electric public transport and community energy schemes.

There is an abundance of evidence that the super-rich disproportionately contribute to climate change. 

Just last month, the British organisation Possible reported that in almost all countries with the highest aviation emissions, a small minority of people take up a huge share of the flights. 

In the UK, for instance, a mere 15 per cent of the population take 70 per cent of all flights. 

This means that wealthier people are disproportionately responsible for emissions that are already causing harm to people around the world, with the effects falling most heavily on poorer communities and global South countries. 

A study by Linnaeus University in Sweden last November found that frequent flying “super-emitters,” who represent just 1 per cent of the world’s population, caused half of aviation’s carbon emissions in 2018. In that same year, 90 per cent of the world’s population did not fly at all. 

Last year, Oxfam published research which found that, between 1990 and 2015, the wealthiest 1 per cent of the world’s population were responsible for the emission of more than twice as much carbon dioxide as the poorer half of the world. 

Carbon dioxide emissions rose by 60 per cent over the 25-year period, but the increase in emissions from the richest 1 per cent was three times greater than the increase in emissions from the poorest half.

This reflects staggering levels of global inequality. The world’s richest 1 per cent have more than twice as much wealth as 6.9 billion people, while almost half of humanity is living on less than $5.50 a day. 

The world literally cannot sustain this level of gross injustice. To protect our planet, we must abolish the obscene wealth of the ultra-rich. 

Without immediate government intervention, the urgent action required to preserve a habitable planet will be too slow. 

This will cause unimaginable disruption and could cost millions of lives, most immediately and sharply in global South countries which have contributed the least to climate change. 

The upcoming COP26 conference in Glasgow, scheduled for November, provides a crucial opportunity to address this existential threat. 

Yet the conference, which already had to be postponed for one year due to the coronavirus, risks excluding representatives from countries that are most at risk from climate breakdown. 

This is partly because poorer countries in the global South do not have the same access to vaccinations, which demonstrates how the coronavirus and climate crises intersect. 

Indeed, richer countries, including Britain, have secured over three times more vaccines than they need to treat their entire populations, while 67 of the poorest countries will only be able to vaccinate one in 10 of their population over the next year. 

Much of Africa, for instance, is not expected to have vaccines widely available until 2023. 

In the build-up to November, we on the left must demand that every possible step is taken to ensure that COP26 is accessible for all. 

I am also gravely concerned that, if fossil fuel companies are left to their own devices, crucial targets will be missed. 

For example, ExxonMobil is projected to extract 25 per cent more oil and gas in 2025 than in 2017. 

Oil companies like Exxon and Shell knew that their extractive industries were causing climate change as far back as the 1980s, but instead of informing the public they funded climate change denial and lobbying against environmental policies.

A 2017 study in the scientific publication World Development found that worldwide fossil fuel subsidies amounted to $4.9 trillion in a single year. 

It estimated that eliminating those subsidies would have cut global carbon emissions by 21 per cent and air pollution deaths by over half. 

It is vital that these subsidies are ended, and that coronavirus bailouts are subject to stringent commitments to workers’ rights, tax justice and rapid decarbonisation 

As we emerge from the pandemic, we must argue for a new social settlement — a Green New Deal to rebuild the country with a more just and sustainable economy. 

We must fight for a society in which public health always comes before private profit. 

We must consider a sector-wide aviation deal, including public stakes in failing airlines, to manage a just transition to renewable energy. 

Reduced air traffic due to the pandemic must also be a turning point, and frequent flier levies must finally be introduced.

We must also call for a green, integrated public transport for the many. Railways should be nationalised, electrified, expanded and affordable. 

Zero-emission, regular buses should serve every community, operated for the public good, not private profit. Our streets must be clean, safe, walking and cycle friendly.

It is vital that the protection of all workers and communities are guaranteed during the transition to renewable energies. 

The required investment and job creation towards a green industrial revolution will also be vital in the necessary post-coronavirus mass re-employment.

To ensure a global Green New Deal, we must call for the cancellation of global South debt to enable investment in public health. 

Britain must take strong action against tax evasion, end international fossil fuel finance and rapidly step up financial support for a just global energy transition.

The current pandemic has demonstrated that we are only as secure as the most precarious among us and that rapid social and economic change really is possible. 

Moments of crises often shape the future. From the horror of the second world war, we created the welfare state and our treasured NHS. 

While we rightly focus on tackling the coronavirus pandemic, the wellbeing of the entire planet relies on us also taking this opportunity to mitigate the existential threat of climate change. We must not let this historic moment pass us by.

The climate crisis is a class crisis. It must be the big polluters and corporate giants who bear the costs, not ordinary people. 

Ultimately, the lifestyles of the ultra-rich are incompatible with climate justice. We cannot tackle climate change without addressing rampant global inequality. 

Claudia Webbe MP is the Member of Parliament for Leicester East
You can follow her at www.facebook.com/claudiaforLE and
twitter.com/ClaudiaWebbe.

OWNED BY OUR READERS

We're a reader-owned co-operative, which means you can become part of the paper too by buying shares in the People’s Press Printing Society.

Become a supporter

Fighting fund

You've Raised:£ 3,369
We need:£ 14,631
24 Days remaining
Donate today