scorecardresearch Skip to main content

How inequality makes climate change worse

A worker in India drinks water during a break from loading sacks of wheat on a freight train at Chawa Pail station in Khanna, Punjab state, on May 19SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP via Getty Images

Study after study has found the climate crisis is compounding global inequality, since extreme weather can destroy infrastructure, decrease productivity, and threaten crop health, threatening poorer countries and communities more than rich ones. A new peer-reviewed analysis from Salem State University and University College London suggests inequality is also exacerbating climate change.

“We can agree that we need to tackle inequality for moral reasons,” said Noel Healy, professor in the Geography and Sustainability Department at Salem State University, who coauthored the paper with Fergus Green, a lecturer in political theory and public policy at University College London. “What our study showed is that actually, there is a climate case for tackling inequality as well.”


The report, published in the journal One Earth on Wednesday, synthesized dozens of studies and identified several ways that extreme wealth and poverty worldwide threaten the climate. It argues that climate policies should be geared toward closing that gap.

The authors argue that strong incentives to oppose some carbon-cutting measures lie on both ends of the wealth gap. The super rich, who have an outsized ability to tip the political scale by lobbying against regulations that threaten their interests, tend to protect known and proven investments, including oil production and manufacturing that depends on fossil fuel, the study says.

Poor and financially insecure people, meanwhile, can be nervous about policies that could raise the price of energy, fuel, and other commodities. The authors point to the 2018 Yellow Vests movement in France and 2019′s uprisings in Chile, Ecuador, and Haiti as examples of these challenges, since in each case, protestors argued that fuel taxes were a regressive levy on working-class people.

The answer, the authors argue, lies in redistributing wealth and power.

Extremely wealthy people tend to have highly polluting consumption habits, the study said, including powering and heating large homes and flying frequently. A 2020 report found that the world’s wealthiest 10 percent were responsible for around half of global emissions in 2015. Quelling these polluting behaviors by taxing them, while also imposing wealth taxes and income caps to eliminate this superwealthy strata and limit the ability to accumulate capital, the authors argue, could eliminate a massive amount of greenhouse gas pollution.


Wealth gaps foster feelings of division, the report says, which can make it hard to undertake the kind of big political projects necessary to combat the climate crisis. And inequality increases the likelihood of government corruption and erodes trust in officials, the authors found.

“Inequality erodes the social foundations of democracy, making it harder to develop collective responses to climate change,” said Green.

The paper suggests these problems are surmountable. The solution, Healy and Green write, is to shift focus from “carbon-centric” policies that focus only on reducing emissions and instead move toward Green New Deal frameworks that also aim to close wealth gaps by creating jobs and improving social services.

“These include things like mandatory living wages, wealth taxes, free transit, pro-union reforms,” said Healy. Boston Mayor Michelle Wu’s climate platform, he said, exemplifies this approach.

Jennie Stephens, director of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University, who did not work on the study, said she was “thrilled” to see the new research. “It demonstrates how our financial systems that are concentrating wealth and power ... need to be transformed as part of society’s response to climate change,” she said.


Michael Mann, climatologist and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University, who did not work on the report, said though “there are many things that are appealing” about the study’s proposals, they may not be politically viable. On Capitol Hill, he said, it’s harder to win support for a broad Green New Deal platform than for narrower policies, like subsidies for renewable energy.

“We have to be realistic about the real world constraints,” he said. “We cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Yet the paper argues that in the longer term, employing the broader framework is “likely to be more effective than the political strategies associated with carbon-centric policies” because it could help build support for climate policy.

“We don’t deny that we need to be cognizant of real-world constraints,” said Green, the coauthor of the new paper, “but the point of the Green New Deal is also to change those constraints over the medium term, which will be necessary if we want to avoid even more catastrophic climate scenarios than what’s already inevitable.”

Dharna Noor can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @dharnanoor.