It literally costs the Earth to live like a billionaire. Private jets, yachts, and those seemingly obligatory space missions all add up to an unsustainable carbon footprint that far exceeds that of the average citizen. But even if we put the astronomical vanity projects aside, the status of billionaires as beneficiaries of an unjust economic system places them among the top polluters on the planet.
According to a 2022 Oxfam report, 125 of the world’s richest billionaires each emit over a million times more carbon than the average person in the bottom 90%, and a solid 50-70% of billionaires’ emissions are thought to result from their investments. The report found that their annual investment emissions are together equivalent to the carbon emissions of France, a country with a population of 67 million.
This stark imbalance goes to show that any serious conversation about climate justice needs to target the outsize influence of the superrich in order to be effective.
Money to burn
Fortunately for humanity, we can’t all afford to lead a billionaire’s lifestyle. One study cited by Oxfam drew on public records to estimate emissions from the private planes, yachts, helicopters, and mansions of 20 billionaires. It found that, in 2018, they each generated an average of 8,914 tons of CO2, compared with 1.4 tons for an individual in the poorest one billion.
This alone is alarming, but the average figure for billionaires soars when we factor in emissions from the investments of the ultra-wealthy. Oxfam estimates the annual investment emissions of the individuals in its sample stands at 3.1 million tons per billionaire — more than one million times higher than the average for someone in the bottom 90%.
The Oxfam report also found that billionaires hold “an average of 14% of their investments in polluting industries, such as fossil fuels and materials like cement,” while only one in the sample held investments in a renewable-energy company. Not only is the wealth of the superrich wedded to highly extractive activities, many billionaires hold significant stakes in the world’s largest corporations, which grants them power and influence over their conduct.
Understanding the impact of investments is critical to tackling climate breakdown because, whether we like it or not, billionaire wealth has a profound impact on our economy and, increasingly, the direction of climate policy. Stakeholders own, are able to influence, and financially profit from production processes that release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Our progress in curbing emissions is largely determined by their decisions.
The unseen dangers of stealth politics
There’s a sticky overlap between concentrations in wealth and concentrations in power. According to Dario Kenner, author of Carbon Inequality: The Role of the Richest in Climate Change, this forms the basis of an “alliance between the polluter elite and policymakers.” Stealth politics take root where these interests converge, allowing an affluent few to advance agendas without a democratic mandate, using methods beyond the reach of the average citizen.
In a separate study, Kenner observed how big oil companies have been known to adopt a range of indirect tactics to minimize disruption to their core interest in oil and gas extraction. This has included lobbying, backing anti-climate organizations, making corporate political donations, and funding campaigns that deny or cast doubt on the severity of climate change. But we might also consider how the presence of big polluters at global conferences, like COP, limits international climate initiatives.
Of course, these activities are perfectly legal and lobbying isn’t inherently bad if it is decoupled from big money. But given that the majority of Americans express concern about the climate and support major mitigation policies, we ought to wonder whether it’s right that wealth wields such power over democratic institutions.
Does money speak louder than the popular will? According to one Princeton University study, it does. It found “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests” enjoy a significant impact on policies becoming law, while citizens and mass-based interest groups have “little or no independent influence.”
Curbing the Influence of carbon billionaires
Bankrolling blockbuster climate initiatives has become a fashionable pastime among the ultra-rich, but philanthro-capitalism will never save us. Economic inequality and climate inequality reinforce each other, and it appears that extreme wealth concentration could be undermining our ability to meaningfully tackle each of these issues.
In tandem with a robust wealth tax to finance renewable infrastructure, a progressive carbon tax that accounts for investment emissions would incentivize those with the largest footprints to reduce them. It would likely compel shareholders to take a stronger stance on environmental governance, and a financial motive to withdraw their investments if a company fails to lower emissions and is taxed.
Some economists suggest a pollution “top-up” tax on economic activities that inflict the most harm on the environment, which could then be applied to the value of stock ownership in oil, gas, and coal companies. They calculate that “a 10% tax rate on the value of carbon assets owned by global multimillionaires would generate at least $100 billion in a year.” This would also avoid the kind of regressive tax approach that disproportionately penalizes the poor.
Since shareholders hold such leverage over the environmental conduct of corporate giants, there’s a strong argument that investment emissions should be monitored and those emissions then taxed. This would shift our focus onto the true per capita carbon footprints of asset owners, rather than territorial emissions, which can often disguise the nature of global trade, offshoring practices, and rampant inequality between nations.
Tighter regulations on lobbying and donations could rein in some of the outsize influence of special-interest groups. Imagining what that looks like is a whole other discussion, but there’s a framework for every political flavor, whether it’s the House Democrats’ original anti-corruption bill or Bernie Sanders’s blueprint for ending corporate money in politics or the American Anti-Corruption Act model legislation that has made gains in cities and states nationwide.
Clearly, we cannot redistribute wealth without also redistributing power. Low-income countries already bear the greatest burden of the climate crisis, despite contributing a far smaller share of global emissions. Top-down approaches only sustain the status quo. More than ever, we need to keep up the fight for effective, equitable climate action through activism that understands climate change as a class issue that impacts communities across the world very differently — and build global coalitions from the ground up.