A recent report from Oxfam entitled “Carbon Billionaires: The Investment Emissions of the World’s Richest People” points the finger at the wealthiest individuals for causing and continuing to fuel climate change through not only their individual carbon footprints but more importantly their investments in polluting industries. The study looks at the impact of 125 of the richest billionaires globally, whose carbon emissions equal those of France, or 67 million people, and shows that just the richest 10 of those individuals own more wealth than the poorest 40% of humanity. The average billionaire in the study is responsible for carbon emissions over one million times higher than the average person in the bottom 90% of humanity.
While their lavish lifestyles–yachts, private jets, mansions and other excessive material wealth—contribute to climate change, their investments account for 50% to 70% of their carbon footprint. Fourteen percent of these investments are in fossil fuels and other polluting industries, with only one of these 125 billionaires having investments in a renewable energy company. A disclaimer from Oxfam states that these figures are likely low estimates of the true carbon emissions of the wealthiest due to lack of independent verification for half of corporate emissions disclosures, as well as failure by most companies to report Scope 3 emissions from their supply chains and consumer use of their products, which often have significant impacts.
The report suggests that governments should increase taxation on the wealthiest, tighten regulations on industry and investors and provide more transparency through income-based emissions reporting. It also highlights the inequities in emissions versus climate impacts with the Global North holding the majority of the responsibility for causing climate change while the still-developing Global South and working-class communities are bearing the brunt of climate disasters. The amount of emissions from the richest sectors of society mirrors income inequality. So the report argues that by taxing the richest, we can distribute wealth more evenly and reduce overall emissions to levels that can stem climate catastrophe–as if just hindering the investment choices of a few bad actors will shift the trajectory we are on.
But what is missing from this report is that the system of capitalism is the root cause. The very nature of capitalism–endless growth, maximization of profits, competition over markets and resources, lack of centralized planning–has caused climate change. The insatiable need to endlessly produce products using the cheapest materials and most exploitative labor with complete disregard for the long-term implications has decimated ecosystems worldwide and spewed massive amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution.
Imperialist domination of markets backed by military might has impeded Global South countries from developing on a sustainable path due to indebtedness, interventions and domination by the Global North. No amount of taxation and regulation will change this dynamic. The wealthy already find ways to avoid paying taxes by hiding funds in offshore accounts and taking advantage of the many tax loopholes and benefits that cater to the elite. And the corporations literally write legislation with the consent of our so-called representatives, while environmental laws protect the right of industry to profit above the health of our communities.
Capitalism can never be environmentally sustainable, as it treats the living world as a commodity to be exploited until there are no more profits to be made. For instance, before colonization, North America was a lush, bountiful landscape supporting an abundance of biodiversity due to the Indigenous peoples’ understanding and respect for the natural world. With the invasion of Europeans came capitalist market forces that drove entire species to near extinction for profit–beaver and otters were killed for their fur, bison slaughtered for their meat, bones and hide, and forests clear cut for lumber, cash crops and cattle grazing.
This drive for profits, largely to feed the markets of Europe, forever altered the ecosystems of this continent. The disruption of the inextricable balance between species that had evolved over millions of years to create the most optimal conditions for all life to thrive impacted how water cycled through the landscape and transformed once-lush ecosystems into deserts.
This environmental decimation has been replicated around the globe, along with the burning of fossil fuels and ongoing land use changes. It has created the current state of droughts, fires, floods and extreme weather, which is seen by the capitalists as mere collateral damage in the paramount goal of profit making.
Continuing ecological destruction–rainforests being cleared for palm oil, cattle, and biofuels, mineral and fossil fuel extraction that poisons landscapes, petrochemical industries producing a constant stream of synthetic materials and disposable plastics that choke the oceans–is all being carried out to bring increasing returns on investments for these billionaires.
The majority of planet-warming emissions stem from these same corporations that plunder the planet. The corporate media, owned by the same ruling elite, loves to promote philanthropic efforts as the path to solving the climate crisis—from Elon Musk to Jeff Bezos to Bill Gates, who in reality do nothing with their money that won’t in the end bring some benefit to themselves while improving their brand.
Working-class individuals and the poorest of the world have little impact on the problem and little choice regarding their carbon footprint with limited resources at hand. Most can’t afford energy efficient housing and often have to rely on getting around by gas-powered vehicles due to lack of adequate public transit or the funds to buy a zero-emission vehicle. Billionaires have that choice, but considering that their wealth came from plundering the planet and exploiting our labor, looking to them to solve the problem is delusional.
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change continues to warn us that the window is rapidly closing to maintain a habitable world with only a few years remaining for rapid emission reductions. It is too late for taxes and regulations. If we are to survive, the workers must take control of our economies and create a socialist system. Under a worker-controlled socialist government and a planned economy, the wealth and resources of society would be utilized in a sustainable and equitable manner to meet the needs of the people and the planet. A world without billionaires is the only path forward.
Tina Landis is the author of the book Climate Solutions Beyond Capitalism.