The climate crisis is real, and we need to take drastic action to avert catastrophe. However, we cannot rely on the wealthy to solve this problem for us. The climate crisis and global inequality cannot really be separated out as neatly as many would have us believe because both issues are truly crises of capitalism. Preventing a climate catastrophe will require massive redistribution and will require us to center the working class and indigenous people in a just transition.
A report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) from October 2018 declared that preventing climate catastrophe will require “rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial system,” but also noted that this transition would be historically unprecedented. These far-reaching changes are going to require a complete reevaluation of how we structure our economy. Capitalism is fundamentally at odds with this change, because at its core capitalism is driven by maximizing short term profits and infinite economic growth on a planet with finite resources.
Averting catastrophe is going to require public ownership and economic planning for such a transition to even be possible. Ultimately, it will mean the end of capitalism and its replacement with a new economic model based upon democratic ownership that puts people and the planet ahead of profits. Needless to say, this is absolutely at odds with the interests of the rich, as it comes almost exclusively at their expense. Averting climate catastrophe will require that they lose their wealth and power, and that the system that allowed them to become so wealthy and powerful be dismantled.
The rich aren’t oblivious to this fact. Some, especially those whose wealth is tied to the fossil fuel industry, have sought to combat this by funding and promoting climate change deniers and politicians who oppose virtually any action on climate change. However, others acknowledge the reality of climate change as a pressing issue.
Many wealthy figures and major corporations have invested large sums into researching new technologies to mitigate the impacts of climate change or invested in making their business practices more sustainable. Some would argue that these efforts show that either the private sector and philanthropy alone can prevent catastrophe, or that only some smaller policy changes combined with these efforts can save us. While these may seem noble, they mask the reality of the scale of the crisis we face and only further entrench inequality.
In June, a report to the United Nations Human Rights Committee warned that “An over-reliance on the private sector could lead to a climate apartheid scenario in which the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger, and conflict, while the rest of the world is left to suffer.” Already we are seeing this manifest, as the rich can escape the worst impacts of climate change, while the poor, the working class and indigenous people, are left to suffer.
During the November 2018 fires that ravaged California, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West were able to employ private firefighters to save their $50 million dollar mansion from the fires. Meanwhile, the town of Paradise, where the median income was $31,863 – less than half the median income for the state as a whole – was all but destroyed by the fires, leaving thousands displaced. Stories like this are only going to become more common unless we take real substantive action on climate change.
The rich will build sea walls to defend their homes while working-class communities are flooded out of their homes by the rising tides. Low-lying nations in the global south, like the Maldives, will become uninhabitable. As temperatures rise and heat indexes worsen, the rich will be able to weatherize their homes, while those who cannot will suffer and many will die of heatstroke. As droughts worsen, the rich will turn to privately owned reservoirs and desalinization while indigenous people see their way of life disappear further.
We cannot turn to the rich to save us from climate catastrophe. Climate change is fundamentally a crisis of capitalism and solving it will require us to address the growing global inequality and reexamine the way our economy is structured. We cannot solve climate change and allow the present levels of wealth and inequality to exist. Action is needed to solve climate change and doing so will require the rich to sacrifice the most. The only just transition to a sustainable world is one which centers the interests of the working class and indigenous people. We cannot continue to live in a world where the rich are able to escape the worst impacts of climate change while the masses suffer the results.