Billionaires love to share their opinions on, well, just about anything. But the superhero capes are especially quick to come out when discussions turn to climate change.
Whether setting up trust funds, posting their opinions on whatever social platform they own, or lecturing regular people, solving the climate crises is the must-have hobby for today’s mega-rich.
But while their admirers point to their philanthropic efforts or investments in new technology, the philanthropic billionaire fallacy is setting a dangerous narrative.
Studies have proven time and time again that the more people earn, the larger their carbon footprint. And when it comes to billionaires, the statistics are jaw-dropping.
Whereas the average person in the top one percent of the global population contributes a worrying 110 tons of carbon a year, that number jumps to a catastrophic 2,531 tons for the 0.01 percent. Indeed, billionaires emit around a million times more greenhouse gases than your average citizen.
The reasons are simple. The rich eat more meat, own and power more stuff, and love to fly. Incredibly, 1% of the world’s population is responsible for 50% of emissions from flying.
Even Bill Gates, a supposed advocate for climate action, can’t seem to stay out of the air. In 2017 alone, he is believed to have taken some 59 flights, generating enough greenhouse gases to match the annual emissions of 105 average Americans. Elon Musk, who is never short of questionable takes concerning environmental issues, traveled a distance equal to more than 12 journeys around the Earth in 2022.
The rich and their fans tend to argue that this over-consumption is offset via donations or investments. Never mind the integral issues with carbon offsetting itself, this holier than-thou, “do as I say, not as I do” approach is toxic to the core.
As Stockholm Environment Institute scientist Emily Ghosh points out, “[the rich] aren’t making the space for the bottom 50% of the population to grow their emissions to the point where they’re actually getting their needs met.” Instead, the global carbon budget is continually being eaten up by billionaires.
Even if everyone else practically ceased existing, the emissions of the ultra-rich would cause massive problems for the planet. Research conducted by the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) and the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) found that the carbon footprint of the richest 1% is set to be 30 times greater than the limit required to keep global temperatures below 1.5C.
This over-consumption sets an awful precedent for others too. Why change your daily routine, or use greener alternatives when society’s most affluent are hopping around the world on private jets? And as our culture increasingly presents the billionaire phenomenon as an aspirational goal rather than a societal failure, why shouldn’t you act as they do? Individual responsibility, it seems, is for peasants only.
But beyond their lifestyle choices lies a more significant problem. That is the political, economic, and social influence the modern billionaire now wields.
Billionaires: Unelected policy makers and influencers
A recent study discovered that the investment choices of 125 billionaires created a carbon footprint equal to the nation of France. Think about that for a moment, and the reality is startling. A group tiny enough to fit inside a small town hall is causing more pollution than one of the most powerful countries on the planet.
Behind the political scenes, billionaires enjoy unfounded sway over government policy-making. Sometimes this works out in the climate’s favor. Other times not so much. The point, in either case, is that the politics surrounding our environment shouldn’t rest on the vanity projects or whims of the mega-rich.
Out in the open, billionaires hold incredible social influence too. After all, they own our papers, our TV stations, and our online platforms, leaving our methods of communication at their mercy. The worrisome influence of media moguls like Rupert Murdoch is well documented. And recently, the social media platform Twitter has seen a massive spike in climate-skepticism content since its takeover by Elon Musk.
The choices on what to do about climate change are being made by those causing the problems. Meanwhile, those who have contributed the least to climate emissions and are most vulnerable to its effects are left without a voice.
Tackling climate catastrophe means tackling wealth inequality
Relying on billionaires to be generous is like hoping medieval kings to be benevolent — a fool’s errand. And we are passed the point of hoping society’s most affluent members will atone for the ills they have inflicted on the rest of us.
Tough taxes on actions such as frequent flying, the over-consumption of meat, and polluting investments are needed now across the developed world. So too, are restrictions on carbon-intensive luxury products like private jets and yachts.
More importantly, we need systematic changes that challenge the growing global wealth inequalities that lie at the heart of the environmental catastrophe occurring on our planet.