Income Inequality: Climate Apartheid

About three months ago (May 14, 2019) I featured a student-written guest blog on income inequality. That blog centered on transportation. It wasn’t the first time that we have addressed the issue on Climate Change Fork. Previous blogs that focused on the issue include:

January 7, 2014: Why Do We Care About Inequality?

August 19 & 26, 2014: Income Inequality – Piketty; Inequality – Responses to Piketty

September 2, 2014: Income Inequality – Science Magazine

September 9, 2014: Income Inequality – Climate Change

August 4, 2015: China – The Price of Progress: Inequality and Transparency

February 19, 2019: The Green New Deal Resolution: Is it Viable?

May 14, 2019: Guest Blog: How Income Inequality Correlates with CO2 Emissions and What We Can Do About It

We are now, slowly but loudly, approaching the 2020 presidential election. Finally, climate change is becoming an important part of the agenda for many aspirational politicians—not only in the US but also abroad. While these candidates are not confined to the left-of-center subset, they mainly emerge from that direction. In many cases, this ties in to that part of the political spectrum increasing its focus on remediating the growing income inequality. The recent dialogues about the Green New Deal (see the February 19th blog) are a good example. Green jobs are a tantalizing promise. However, in all these discussions, what we are missing are direct, quantitative connections between these two issues. This shortcoming leaves the impression in many quarters that presenting the two issues as intertwined is more of a publicity stunt (“look at what good people we are!”) than an actual means of addressing strategies to solve societal issues.

I don’t think this has to be the case. I will try in this blog to identify some of the missing direct connections between the trends—especially in cases where the two are so intertwined that we cannot address one of these trends without also referencing the other.

I found a fitting new phrase that describes the intersection between income inequality and climate change: BBC reported on the recently coined term, “climate apartheid.”

Climate apartheid’ between rich and poor looms, UN expert warns

A UN expert has warned of a possible “climate apartheid”, where the rich pay to escape from hunger, “while the rest of the world is left to suffer”.

Even if current targets are met, “millions will be impoverished”, said Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty.

He also criticized steps taken by UN bodies as “patently inadequate”.

“Ticking boxes will not save humanity or the planet from impending disaster,” Mr Alston warned.

The Australian native is part of the UN’s panel of independent experts, and submitted his report – which is based on existing research – to the UN Human Rights Council on Monday.

I find the article and expression accurate and engaging. I have talked before about climate refugees and have no doubt that many in such situations as described above will soon be forced to flee their homes in search of the resources essential to their survival. The emphasis in the UN was on rich and poor countries but the divide also applies to smaller units.

Figure 1 shows a plot of the global income distribution, based on OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) data:

global income distribution, income inequality, income

Figure 1Plot of global income distribution

You can see from the graph that in 2003 almost 1.5% of the world population earned roughly $400. Ten years later in 2013, the number of people with a similar income was only half of that. By 2035, the OECD projects that only about 0.4% (the highest plurality for the year) will earn between $1,000-2,000. I’m not sure if these numbers are adjusted for inflation but we can see that the trend is more money going to fewer people, especially as we look farther down the graph to where only a few individuals hold most of the money.

I have discussed the Gini coefficient before as a measure of inequality, specifically in the context of China (August 4, 2015); 0 is completely equal and 1 is completely unequal (one guy owns everything). In this case, the Gini values are represented in percentages. The world is a very unequal place.

To determine the impact of such unequal distribution on climate change, one must first figure out individuals’ expenses as a function of their incomes. To do this globally would be basically impossible. It would, for example, have to include considerations such as currency conversion and large differences in tradition and preference. Fortunately, the US census survey has provided an example:

Table 1 – Average Annual Expenditures of All Consumer Units by Income Level: 2009

income inequality, income, food, shelter, utilities, vehicles, cars, gas, gasoline, health, healthcare, pensions, social security

In the categories that obviously result in carbon emissions, such as food, utilities, and gasoline consumption, one can see saturation in expenditures for larger income brackets—those who can pay for the fanciest versions of everything. However, as we covered in the graph above, there are significantly fewer people in those brackets and the smaller numbers at the bottom add up quickly. In other words, the much larger numbers of lower income people will emit considerably more than the small number of high-income people, thus continuing the drivers of climate change. Increasing equality will mean contributing resources to low-polluting activity, thereby decreasing the carbon intensity of the world (pollution divided by GDP).

About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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16 Responses to Income Inequality: Climate Apartheid

  1. ioannis kakaris says:

    Richer nations are able to mitigate climate effects by taking steps that are quite economically impossible to achieve in poorer nations. These poorer nations pay for the price of climate change in lives while richer nations and peoples are able to avert from danger either through relocation or expensive preventative measures like dams. Wealth must be equally distributed to give nations and people a greater chance at subverting and minimising the lethal effects of climate change.

  2. Markela Agolli says:

    On a global scale, rich countries contribute to climate change on a greater scale by producing more emissions, yet poor countries will have to bear the majority of the cost. Without the wealth of resources to escape environmental damage, poorer countries and individuals are forced to pay the cost of the damage instead. The issue of “climate apartheid” reflects the inherent inability of our economic system to handle the problems it creates. The wealthiest individuals and countries are allowed to obtain their wealth by causing environmental damage, but the ones affected by efforts to reduce this damage will be the lower class and underdeveloped countries. Workers of corporations that produce large carbon emissions would be left without an income if we took efforts against the emissions, while the owners and shareholders have the money to escape the effects of their emissions if we leave it unaddressed. Like Dylan said, strong social systems and wealth redistribution would be good methods of addressing the problem. We can hold corporations financially responsible for their contributions to climate change (through taxes, fines, etc…) and put the money towards supporting those who are affected by the “climate apartheid” as we move towards green jobs.

  3. Sydney Rodriguez says:

    Like my classmates have stated, income inequality is a big factor in climate change. We can’t combat climate change without EVERYONE, no matter identity, class, or country, doing their part. However, it is hard to make that possible when low-income families and countries do not have the proper resources they need to make greener changes to their lifestyles. As a people, we need to come together and make the necessary changes to make sure everyone has an equal opportunity to make changes to impact climate change.

  4. Vincent Tang says:

    The disparity in wealthy between wealthy countries and poorer countries is evident in their ability to handle and recover from natural disasters. Wealthier countries have at their disposal more resources to handle the disasters that come their way and to recover from them, whereas poorer countries are more susceptible to the effects of disasters and have less of a capability to handle and recover from them.

  5. Christopher N Huth says:

    It is a well documented fact that poorer countries with less carbon emissions are being disproportionately affected by the effects of carbon emissions from richer countries. This is especially true for countries that lie along the equator. The UN has tried many solutions for this problem including Carbon tax and other measures yet these seem to have little to no affect in solving anything especially when key countries like the US pull out of the Paris Climate Accords.

  6. Cristian Amendano says:

    I’m not very surprised by the rich becoming richer while the poor becoming poorer. The rich have the resources to handle natural disasters while the poor can’t. If there is a hurricane or wildfire, the rich can move and overcome the loss of property. On the other hand, the poor don’t have the luxury to do so.

  7. We have so many ways of talking about it and around it, but ultimately there is massive inequality of wealth in our country and our world. My classmates have all said it in their own way, so to offer my own take on it, I’d like to ask whoever reads this — what do we do about it? I think building and strengthening systems that redistribute wealth, either as a community or larger scale in government could be key in this. Strong social support systems on all scales. Now what else?

  8. Jennifer Dong says:

    I like and agree with the phrase the others said, “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” I feel like with poverty its like a cycle being passed down from families. Those who are born into poverty stay in poverty. It is a fact that climate change affects low income people/countries more because they have less resources but this goes for any time of situation such as COVID right now. I think poorer countries can use the examples of more developed countries as an example to what to avoid in terms of climate change, but at the same time do you think if we were aware what fossil fuels and plastic and other things do to our environment, we would try to avoid them?

  9. Lily Zheng says:

    I agreed how income inequality and climate change had a relationship where a richer country can react faster with natural disasters like flood or fire. They can also help the people by giving funds to rebuild homes and foods. The homes people build can also be made out of stronger materials preventing future disaster.

  10. Dalziel Garcia Filpo says:

    I feel like the rich have more benefits and have an advantage over the poor which is clear to understand since they have more money. Low income people/countries makes it harder for them to prepare and repair damages from disasters while the rich can rebuild using the money they have or put money into protecting their property and get the resources they need. Income inequality just makes the poor suffer since they can’t fix as much problems as the rich. It’s important to note that richer countries release more total emissions and if there’s more equality, the carbon intensity will decrease.

  11. Lina Ou says:

    “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer”. The rich are always entitled to good resources, which makes them richer. The poor have never had access to good resources, so they become poorer and poorer.

  12. Kristina Wetterich says:

    The income gap keeps getting larger and larger and this is something that needs to be addressed. With the help of the rich, we could drastically change the environment and decrease the income gap if they put their money into helpful causes instead of capitalizing off of the middle and lower class. Interesting article!

  13. Eric Ma says:

    Rich countries become richer and poor countries get poorer. Rich countries release more emissions than poor countries. These are undeniable facts. Yet, I like to point out that these two statements are mere illusions. Poor countries, poorer than the rich, only seem to be poorer as the rich get richer. From the perspective of those who get richer, the poor indeed become poorer. Yet, less and less people are considered to be in poverty throughout the years. Rich countries release more emissions than poor countries is true, yes. But that difference isn’t only what’s being released presently, it’s mainly in the difference in total released emissions. A country richer than the poor releases more total emissions because the richer have already gone through their industrial revolution.

    I like to point out that we need not point figures at the rich. It is inevitable that a developed country has gone through an industrial revolution has released more emissions than those that have not. It is important to prevent the same large-scale emissions that were released by developed countries from currently developing countries. And we can do this with the help of the rich.

  14. Aaliyah Copeland says:

    The phrase “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer ” is a proven fact. When certain occurrences such as a climate crisis are in effect it is illustrated that the poorer countries suffer the most.

  15. Mhetaz Karim says:

    It is a proven fact that rich countries use more fuel than poorer countries however income inequality between nations leave the poorer countries less equipped to deal with the climate crisis. If carbon emissions are not controlled it’ll be the lower income nations who’ll suffer much worse fate than rich countries regarding climate change. Already countries like Bangladesh and India are suffering from excessive flooding and hill slide and continued climate change will only increase the negative consequence.

  16. Roksana Jasiewicz says:

    I would like to bring up another point about income inequality and climate change. The effects of climate change affect all income groups, and income inequality impacts how those people are able to deal with those effects. Higher-income individuals could afford to move away or buy a new house if theirs is destroyed in a fire or a flood, but lower-income people could not afford that ‘luxury’. If their homes are destroyed, they could end up homeless.

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