“For years we’ve fought to end an era of fossil fuels to save millions of lives and our planet. It’s clearer than ever this will be impossible until we also end an era of extreme wealth,” said Oxfam International interim Executive Director Amitabh Behar.
Understanding the role of super-rich and rich people (the top 1% and 10% by income) in climate breakdown is essential if we are to successfully stabilize our planet and guarantee a good life for all of humanity.
The super-rich are key to the climate story in three ways:
Just as there is extreme inequality in who is responsible for the carbon emissions that have caused today’s climate crisis, there is vast inequality in how its impacts are felt.
The deeply unjust reality is that rich people and countries are driving the climate crisis, while those living in poverty, marginalized groups, and low-income countries are paying the price.
Rich people can do more to insulate themselves from the impacts of climate change. They tend to live in more secure housing, on land less prone to floods or other natural disasters, with appliances that can prevent the heat from becoming unbearable. They can often rely on savings or insurance to rebuild any damage caused.
Meanwhile, people living in poverty and other marginalised groups tend to live in more vulnerable housing, which is often over-crowded, more prone to flooding, and without access to air-conditioning. Repeated heat- waves, flooding, and drought are experienced very differently in these contrasting scenarios. Repeated climate-related disasters also continue to erode their capacity to overcome shocks and build back their lives and livelihoods.
The question of who should take action is an easy one to answer. The richest individuals, countries and corporations must act to bring an end to the twin crises of climate breakdown and inequality.
Their excessive carbon emissions must be cut, first and fastest. Most of the carbon consumption emissions of the super-rich come from non-essential luxury goods and services– such as private jets, yachts, or fleets of gas-guzzling cars. As such, they have a far greater capacity to reduce their emissions, and fast.
Their power and influence over politics, the economy, and society must be reduced. The richest individuals, countries, and corporations exert significant sway and power over political and economic decisions. They often derail policies aimed at tackling the climate and inequality crises to protect their financial interests.
Tai, 64, works as a street cleaner in Hong Kong. With her low daily income, she can only afford to take one day off a month. Working in conditions of extreme heat, while wearing a non-breathable uniform, she often leaves her soaked in sweat. In the street, her only protection is her hat, which she made herself. In these conditions, and many of her co-workers suffer from heat-related illnesses.
Wong and her two children live in a tiny nine-square-metre flat. On a hot day, indoor temperature is often far higher than outside, and turning on the air-conditioner is a luxury they cannot afford. On a rainy day, Wong and her children need to use an umbrella in their own washroom because the roof leaks, the result of damage caused by the last typhoon.
Hong Kong has more billionaires per million people than anywhere else on Earth. From 2010-2020, the number of ‘very hot weather warnings’ in Hong Kong increased by nearly 160 percent compared to 2000-2009. Typhoons and severe rainstorms have become more frequent – yet not everyone experiences them in the same way
Researchers have calculated that rich countries that have emitted excess carbon owe $192 trillion USD in compensation to low-emitting countries in the Global South.
They must pay for the costs of climate breakdown. The richest not only have the greatest ability to pay; they also have a responsibility to compensate for their historic carbon emissions and their ongoing neo-colonial
extractive practices that have put the future of life on Earth at risk.
The problem is not a lack of money; the problem is that far too much of it is in the hands of a few.
The story started in March 2019. Twenty-seven law students from the University of the South Pacific decided to start a campaign to persuade the leaders of the Pacific Island Forum to take the issue of the climate crisis and human rights to the International Court of Justice for an advisory opinion.
Led by Vanuatu, Pacific nations soon took up the law students’ call. Support from people around the world poured in. On 29 March 2023 in New York, the UN General Assembly adopted the historical resolution seeking from the International Court of Justice, the World Court, an Advisory Opinion on the question on Climate Change.