Q&A: The Causal Relationship Between Inequality and Climate Change

By Nick Cunningham, an independent journalist covering the oil and gas industry, climate change and international politics. Originally published at DeSmog.

Climate change has worsened global inequality, with poorer countries less able to withstand and adapt to climate change’s effects. It also has worsened inequality within countries between the rich and the poor: The impacts of drought, floods, hurricanes, and extreme heat are disproportionately felt by low-income communities and communities of color.

But new research suggests the reverse is also true: Not only is climate change contributing to greater inequality, but inequality is also fueling climate change. A new peer-reviewed paper by Fergus Green and Noel Healy, published in One Earth, analyzes the various ways in which inequality contributes to more greenhouse gas emissions while simultaneously making climate action even more difficult to pursue. The paper also asserts that climate policies that only focus on cutting greenhouse gas emissions, while ignoring inequality, will prove less effective at addressing the climate crisis compared to a much broader movement — like the Green New Deal — that attacks both inequality and climate change at the same time. 

DeSmog spoke with one of the authors, Fergus Green, a lecturer in political theory and public policy at University College London, about the new research. The following conversation was edited for brevity and clarity. 

Nick Cunningham: Let’s start off with some basics on climate change and inequality. We know that climate change contributes to worsening inequality, that much is not in dispute, right? How does it do that? 

Fergus Green: As we see all over the world, climate-related disasters like bushfires and wildfires, droughts, flooding… those that are already vulnerable tend to be the worst hit. People who are poor don’t have access to adequate shelter, don’t have access to the mobility that they need to either avoid the worst impacts or move elsewhere afterwards. These shocks have a disproportionate impact on the worst off. 

There are also these slow-onset events, particularly food and water related impacts, which also tend to disproportionately affect poor people because of their dependence on subsistence agriculture or their limited ability to purchase food. If there’s a food price shock, they’re the worst hit, and we’re seeing that at the moment. So, there are various kinds of channels in which climate events are particularly bad for the poor.

NC: And then the well-off can kind of insulate themselves.

FG: Yeah, to a degree, although there are limits to that. The better off you are, the better insulated you certainly are going to be for a lot of these effects in the near-term. And actually, more than that, what we see is that the very rich are able to often profit financially from shocks. This is something that Naomi Klein has written a lot about, this idea of the Shock Doctrine. Those whose assets are tied up in financial and productive assets, which is predominantly the global 1 percent, can take advantage of shocks to shift investments in areas that do well out of natural disasters. So, there’s some sense in which the very well-off do better, but that’s of course limited by the fact that they also have to live on the planet. Certainly, relative to the people at the bottom of the income distribution where the impacts will be the worst felt, it’s very clear that for various reasons climate change is worsening, and will increasingly worsen, inequality.

NC: OK. And your paper kind of turns that on its head, and you find that inequality is worsening climate change. Walk me through some of the basics. How does that work?

FG: Yeah, exactly right. In this paper we are trying to show that the causal arrow goes the other way as well, and therefore potentially could be a vicious cycle over the long run. What we try to do is synthesize a whole bunch of research from different fields — economics, geography, sociology — that speaks to the various ways existing inequalities are linked to greater emissions. The slogan we used to summarize those mechanisms is: consumption, production, obstruction, trepidation, and non-cooperation. 

NC: I think the one that would not be surprising to people would be consumption, that idea that the wealthy consume more. But some of these others might be a little bit more surprising to people. For example, the notion that the fraying social fabric could worsen climate change was interesting. Basically, as people see their circumstances deteriorate, they become less trusting in public institutions and that obstructs climate policy. Is that right?

FG: Yeah, that’s the “non-cooperation” theme that we look at. In a way, I’d say the direct evidence for this is the most complicated, but there’s an underlying intuitive story that we piece together. There are two mechanisms here. First, the idea is that for any ambitious climate action it’s going to require the government to take actions that have a long time horizon. There’ll be costs to that and there’ll be benefits, but a lot of the costs come upfront. And then the benefits include both the global and diffuse climate benefits, and other benefits like reduced air pollution and [increased] jobs and innovation. Those benefits take place over the medium-term.

The problem here is that governments are going to require their citizens to trust them, to trust that their promises to tackle climate change are going to yield all these benefits. But in highly unequal societies you have this problem where citizens are often cynical about politics and government. Because of these inequalities, the rich are able to capture those government processes. So, inequality is linked to corruption. And that makes citizens cynical and therefore less likely to trust and authorize their governments to undertake these nation-building reforms.

The second mechanism is more about how citizens relate to one another. The term that’s used here in the literature is “social trust.” And we can sort of think about the trust between different groups and the solidarity between groups, and the willingness to compromise and make sacrifices for one another. Inequality reduces that social trust. The rich can live in gated communities and separate themselves from social and environmental ills. And we also know that the rich can use their control over media and communications to stoke divisions between everyone else. We see that particularly in the U.S. and other places with the role of Murdoch media and so on. 

So, there are these various ways in which society becomes less trustful of one another. And if we think that climate change requires unprecedented cooperation, be it at the level of neighborhoods and community institutions, but also coming together in social movements to demand political change, then inequality is going to be a barrier to that collective action.

NC: And then as you mention, there’s sort of a vicious feedback loop because then the rich can sort of buy more political power and rig the system even more in their favor, which then sort of stokes even more mistrust. Is that right? So, the mechanisms sort of interact with each other.

FG:  They certainly do. Exactly. And particularly so here. We have one section where we actually combined two of our five themes, “production” and “obstruction,” because they are so closely related. As you rightly point out, that’s also very closely connected to this last set of mechanisms around undermining the social fabric. 

A lot has been written about [obstruction], the ability of corporations and wealthy investors… to use their power to create a favorable regulatory environment. And that’s not only obstructing, stopping, and weakening climate policies, but also ensuring large subsidies for fossil fuels and various other regulations that actively support more of the things that we don’t need, like coal mines and gas wells. 

NC: The one that may be a little more common sense to people is that consumption category. How does that work? The wealthy accrue more wealth, then consume more? Is that the basic idea?

FG: Yeah. Exactly. As people’s incomes rise, they consume more goods, and that means they consume more energy. And energy, at least as currently configured, is carbon-intensive. 

One thing to note is that in these studies, emissions in the supply chain are usually attributed to the end consumer as a kind of accounting move. This is obviously somewhat arbitrary, because producers also make decisions. So, we try to highlight the importance of consumption, but also widen the focus so we’re looking more upstream in the production process. 

NC: In general, scientists and much of the climate movement, though not all, spent years narrowly focused on cutting greenhouse-gas emissions in what you call a “carbon-centric” approach to climate policy. And fighting inequality was kind of an entirely separate journey for other people to take on. Why do you think that approach is misguided?

FG: I think this would be a good time to mention the one category that we haven’t mentioned yet, which we call “trepidation.” The idea here is we’re shifting our focus now from the wealthy down to certainly those who are poor and low-income — but even to some extent the middle class — who are somewhat financially precarious or overstretched in various ways. What that means is a lot of people are afraid of [the effects of] climate change policy on their jobs or prices, like on fuel and electricity. It’s very easy for opponents of climate change policy to mobilize the boogeyman of increased costs, even when policies do include redistributive mechanisms. It’s often a very powerful attack. 

NC: This is like the Yellow Vest movement in France, for example, when French President Emanuel Macron hiked fuel taxes in 2018 and it sparked mass protest?

FG: Exactly right. We’re not going to be able to enact carbon-centric climate policies if there’s this kind of backlash. And I think that this has really unfolded in the last few years, and not just in France with the gilets jaunes. We’ve seen this elsewhere in both the Global North and Global South. 

This has, I think, made even the carbon centrists recognize that we can’t just tackle climate change on its own. We also need to think about redistributive aspects if we’re going to get any climate change mitigation policy at all. I think it was a bit of a wake-up call.

NCA few years ago when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced their Green New Deal framework, one of the criticisms, even from people who are interested in addressing climate change, was that it included all these ancillary proposals to address inequality that had nothing to do with climate change. It sounds like you’re suggesting that that was sort of the right approach all along? 

FG: That’s right. And our study is explicitly framed to respond to this kind of critique… from what we call “Carbon Centrists,” those that think inequality and climate change are not causally related (or not significantly so). Or, they think that by trying to tackle these wider inequalities, we’ll just alienate moderates and centrists who we need in order to strike bargains to do anything on climate change at all. 

What we try to do is synthesize the evidence that’s out there, and build up this picture that kind of comprehensively responds to that critique and says, “No, actually, these things are deeply intertwined through material processes and the political process. And we really have to address them together to make any sort of progress on either, and certainly on climate.” 

NC: Let’s say that a large-scale Green New Deal program could be enacted. How would it attack inequality and climate change at the same time and address all these problems all at once? What kind of solutions are we talking about? 

FG: That’s a good question. There have been a lot of proposals for Green New Deals from activist organizations, presidential candidates, and even some people who’ve been elected to office. What we’ve done is basically reviewed 29 Green New Deal proposals, mostly from the U.S. and Europe, but not entirely. We’ve grouped their various components and said they really fall into six different buckets. Some include more traditional carbon-centric climate policies, but three of them we think are really distinctive to Green New Deal policy programs. And it’s these three that we focus on as the basis for combating these mechanisms that link inequalities to climate change.

First is “sustainable social provisioning” policies. So, that’s about the state providing basic necessities to ensure that they are universally accessible, but also decarbonizing them at the same time. A key one here is housing, ensuring that people have access to housing, but not just any housing, efficient housing that’s not connected to gas. 

The second bucket is financial security policies. This gets to the problem I mentioned earlier about people feeling insecure about their jobs or their purchasing power because of climate policies. We need to ensure that all people are financially secure. The Ocasio-Cortez-Markey Green New Deal emphasized a jobs guarantee. That’s one way of getting there. There are others. 

The third bucket we call “reconfiguring power.” It’s not just about redistribution, it’s about changing the rules so that political power and economic power are more evenly spread throughout society. A key one here is shifting the balance between capital and labor through reforms in labor markets that are more pro-union. Also, reforms and processes that center racial, indigenous, and gender justice. That’s also about reconfiguring power. 

NC: I was going to ask about the politics of all of this. As you mentioned earlier, often carbon-centric approaches sort of presume that we really need to keep this narrow in order to get moderates on board or even some conservatives. You’re saying, that’s not working. 

FG: I think it’s fair to say a lot of carbon-centric approaches are sort of apolitical. They don’t really think through the political implications of these policies. 

This idea that there’s this sort of bipartisan cooperation around climate change that might happen is both belied by the institutional setup of the United States, but also by recent experience, which suggests there’s not much of a center around which to cooperate.

A Green New Deal approach is predicated on incorporating transformative climate policy and a wider set of reforms that are intended to appeal to the vast majority, as well as progressive interest groups. The thought is if you can have a transformative vision and policy program that mobilizes votes on the left and left of center, you can get enough people to vote for that, and then implement that program in your own right. That’s the hope. 

Now, it’s fair to say, even that’s very challenging in the current environment. There’s no doubt about that. 

NC: I’m wondering if there are any places around the world that you see as being at the forefront of this? 

FG: That’s a good question. I think it’s fair to say that so far there’s not very many that have been enacted. There are some things that have been sort of branded as Green New Deals. One we are studying at the moment is the case of Spain. You had a Socialist Party that came to power after the collapse of the Conservative government in 2018. They went to an election in April 2019, the [Socialist Party] platform included quite prominently a Green New Deal. We focused on an aspect of that that supported the transition of Spanish coal regions. We think they did that quite well. There are lessons to learn there, how to do a kind of Just Transition in fossil fuel regions. 

Beyond that, I think what is really interesting is what is happening at a sub-national level in the U.S. We saw, for example, in Boston, Michelle Wu elected as Boston Mayor on a very prominent Green New Deal strategy there. So, that is sort of one of the few examples of someone who has been elected on a through-and-through Green New Deal strategy. Of course, recognizing that there are limits to what cities can do. But I think that’s a very fascinating example of where this kind of politics can be successful. 

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Eclair

    Orphan oil and gas wells. There are over 7,000 documented orphan wells in New York State and over 25,000 abandoned wells in Pennsylvania. They leak methane into the air and pollute ground water. Plus, they are ugly, rusting eyesores. The corporations and rentiers that benefited from them have dissolved into bankruptcy or disappeared into an impenetrable maze of shell companies.

    In Chautauqua County, NY alone there are over 250 orphan wells. On our street, within a short walk, there are four gas wells, still operating, more or less, plus a large and noisy compressor station. There is a gas well on the property we purchased from our neighbor’s estate. Plus, two ‘rights of way’ leading to two additional gas wells on adjacent properties. These are still ‘maintained,’ although they have been producing since the 1990’s and are pretty well played out. One of these days, they will wake up orphaned.

    Abandoned wells must be ‘capped’ in order to prevent leakage into air and ground water: costs quoted at about $20,000 to $800,000 per well, and a few days to weeks of work, depending on whether above ground site remediation is included.

    That’s a lot of money and a lot of jobs. Oil field work, mostly in the mid and mountain west, provides decent paying jobs for a high school graduate in this area. And, they have to be away from home for weeks at a time. Capping wells and site remediation would be close to home. Of course, working out funding sources will be a battle, but taxing fossil fuel companies and/or removing their billion dollar subsidies would be a start. And, any nation that can blithely authorize $800 billion to bail out a bank, or $60 billion for bombs for Ukraine, should be able to work out a plan.

    1. Solarjay

      Hi Eclair, yes good one.
      This is just another common theme of corrupt politicians not passing and enforcing laws that will do the job needed, in this case taking care of abandoned wells. But would also include mines and the list goes on. It’s another giveaway to the extraction industries.

      I’m afraid I don’t actually see an answer as our politicians become more corrupt not less. See the lack of passage of the insider trading for congress as just other example.

      Just sad.

      1. Charger01

        This same dynamic exists for the wildcat and legitimate mining that was done in the 1800s in the West. California, Nevada, Idaho and Oregon are pockmarked with hundreds of sites that need to be remediation, however where is that money going to come from? Same idea with oil and gas wells.

        1. Solarjay

          For example, every well, mine, etc, would have a bond to cover All of the remediation, including inflation. Not hard at all to come up with dozens of options about guaranteed money from the developer to fix what they screwed up.
          It’s back to corrupt politicians, and that is a much harder problem to fix.

          1. Eclair

            Yep, Solarjay. I feel like a broken record whistling into the wind (to mix a metaphor), talking about what should be done to ‘internalize’ the costs of mining and drilling. It’s all been said: requiring bonds, nationalizing the industries (as Susan mentions below,) removing government subsidies, creating new types of jobs, instead of giving in to the inevitable wails of ‘ we can’t close down x mine or stop drilling, because jobs jobs jobs! Golly, what a failure of imagination! These people would still be hanging on to the buggy whip manufacturers! (OK, they’re not unimaginative, they’re corrupt.) But we have to keep at it, drip, drip, drip. While maybe, we look longingly at the ‘black ops’ side of The Ministry for the Future.

    2. Susan the other

      All the wildcatters are trying to make their profits and pay off their investors and their obscene debt, so of course they externalize these costs – it’s too expensive to cap a well. That is one clear example of why petroleum – gas and oil – should be nationalized. The government has the wherewithal to do this and not go bankrupt. And other socialized costs. Look at it through the eyes of this post: Socializing costs is the mechanism (at least one of them) whereby inequality is promoted.

  2. Culp Creek Curmudgeon

    Sorry Fergus, it ain’t just the “Murdoch media” that “stoke divisions.” Other than that, which admittedly is a minor point, lots to think about. And damn if half of your articles don’t remind me of The Ministry for the Future these days.

  3. David in Santa Cruz

    The third bucket we call “reconfiguring power.”

    The two biggest contributors to anthropogenic climate change are the U.S. and China. Both are under the rule of undemocratic oligarchies who have rigged their electoral systems in such a way that make political reconfiguration impossible.

    This is even before we get to a discussion of “social provisioning” and “financial security” policies. The official policy of the U.S. government is sanctions against any threat to their power, from withholding housing and medical care from its own citizens displaced by its “free market” and globalization policies to entire nations who pose real or imagined threats to their hegemony over the manipulation of money and finance.

    Eight billion human lives in being will be nine billion by the end of the next decade. Hoarding and rationing will become the prevailing redistributive policies, imposed by force. Even if there were a broad-based movement toward a Green New Deal, there is not a multi-party electoral system in either the U.S. or China through which it might implement policy at a national level.

  4. Susan the other

    Thank you for this post. It is short and to the point, but comprehensive. I’d only add that the most important item in bucket #1 (sustainable social provisioning) besides food, housing and education is health care. We need to understand the mechanism of private capital and private corporations seeking profit – it is the main imperative, so private “health care” will eventually fail altogether. We need nationalized health care because the cost of health care is very high, much like wildcatting for oil, and the medical profession is looking for any way they can socialize those costs. It is a disaster. We need a comprehensive single payer government system that pays all the bills. Including reasonably good compensation for docs and all health care workers. The price tag makes the conservatives’ eyes pop out, but in the end what goes around comes around. And this is a must.

    And one more thing to add is this (maybe) – In order to “get the conservatives on board” we should use the Military. Those guys we love to hate until we need them. The US Military is a force of nature – it’s been our greatest human resource for a century and that’s because we fund it and support it. So let’s give the Military a new primary mandate to save the planet, more or less. The military is well coordinated and it can hire expertise from all of science. Put them together. Fund them and produce good results. Good practical results. Combining the state of the art knowledge for all branches of science – agriculture, engineering, medicine, ecology, oceanology, the atmosphere, biology, blablablah. The Military can do this. It’s called “mobilization” and they know how to do it. Let’s use them to get this off the ground. And keep it off the ground.

    1. Susan the other

      mmm – is there such a thing as Social Fascism? We might want to examine how that could work.

  5. digi_owl

    In recent years i keep having Soylent Green at the back of my mind when reading about environmental and economic issues in tandem.

  6. Adam Eran

    A little reminder that inequality distorts the narrative by which we live:

    From The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by Graeber and Wengrow (from its footnotes)

    In a brilliant and under-appreciated book called Domination and the Arts of Resistance (1990), James Scott makes the point that whenever one group has overwhelming power over another, as when a community is divided between lords and serfs, masters and slaves, high-caste and untouchable, both sides tend to end up acting as if they were conspiring to falsify the historical record. That is: there will always be an ‘official version’ of reality–say, that plantation owners are benevolent paternal figures who only have the best interest of their slaves at heart–which no one, neither masters nor slaves, actually believes, and which they are likely to treat as self-evidently ridiculous when ‘offstage’ and speaking only to each other, but which the dominant group insists subordinates play along with, particularly at anything that might be considered a public event. In a way, this is the purest expression of power: the ability to force the dominated to pretend, effectively, that two plus two is five. Or that the pharaoh is a god. As a result, the version of reality that tends to be preserved for history and posterity is precisely that ‘official transcript.’

  7. Ignacio

    This is good stuff, IMO.
    True that the Spanish government has tried to take measures against climate change and at the same time tackle inequality. And to some point it has produced progress but barriers have been found at all levels including the too liberal EU. Teresa Ribera who is Minister for the Ecology Transition (direct translation) is IMO the best politician in Spain. Her tenure includes policies on energy, contamination, life diversity, and what is called the demographic challenge and rural depopulation. Not that easy to find a politician you can be proud of.
    So there has not been a Green Deal because the conservatives don’t want policies that address inequality: economical inequality, women-men inequality, rural-urban inequality etc. And there will never be such a pact in as much as the conservatives don’t change their minds drastically.

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