There’s three ways to look at the role of class within the climate emergency. The first is innocent enough, but incoherent, arguing that global warming and climate breakdown are too important and too immediate to spend time worrying about the class dynamic of it all, or any wider structural economic question for that matter. The second is hardly innocent, but brutally logical; that the apocalypse is a great equaliser, and that because we’re all stuck on this planet — rich or poor — in the end we will all suffer the same fate.
Both arguments very much live on different sides of the same coin. The former follows a rationale such as, “yes, they have a private jet, but you also fly, so you’re still to blame,” while the latter follows a rationale of, “yes, I have a private jet, but I’m only one person, and we need a collective response.”
Both instances acknowledge flying is bad, but the response is one born of class interest; a false solidarity that because we all pollute, we all pollute equally. But there is more to it still. The choice to attack the commercial airline user, rather than the private jet user, is because there is a class separation which shields the latter. A person who owns a private jet moves in different circles, and faces different criticisms, than someone who doesn’t. Equally, the private jet owner uses a false sense of solidarity to excuse their actions; to launder their activities through the bad but less harmful activities of others.
There is a third way to look at class and the climate emergency: that false solidarity is false, that just because we all pollute, we do not pollute equally, and that a greater burden to reform must be placed on those whose actions harm the planet the most.
This cross-section between pollution and class has come to be known as carbon inequality. Carbon inequality describes the relationship between inequality in a society, and the propensity to pollute my members within that society. And broadly, wealthier members of society produce more pollution than poorer members. For example, a 2015 Oxfam report found the poorest 10% of the world’s population were reasonable for around 10% of the world’s emissions; the top 10% were reasonable for around 50%. A similar tendency has been found in China, the U.S., and across the OECD.
But there appears to be a slightly deeper dynamic than just this trend. Published in Ecological Economics, Grunewald et al. (2017) use a comprehensive international dataset to investigate the relationship between income inequality and carbon emissions. They find evidence consistent with the trend reported by Oxfam — that wealthier individuals produce more carbon emissions — but this trend is mostly seen in developed countries.
The authors argue in poor countries, many citizens already live outside of the carbon economy, and so levels of inequality matter less because the absolute wealth required for consumption is scarcer. In richer countries, the wealth to finance consumption is available to more people, with those with more wealth tending to consume more, and consume in more polluting ways (for example, driving instead of using public transport).
But what does any of this have to do with class? Well, Grunewald et al. (2017) argue that in more equal societies (which is to say societies with weaker class structures), it is easier to reach a social consensus over environmental policy because, “the relative power of groups that benefit from emissions (e.g. owners of capital) is weaker” (Grunewald et al., 2017: 254).
This makes sense, especially when returning to narrative arguments made above. Class is less of an issue, which is to say the, ‘we’re all in this together,’ argument is more valid, when we all really are in this together. And policy is more effective when there are fewer capital and institutional barriers which may shield some members of society from compliance.
Making Policy in Silos
A class understanding of pollution is vital if we want to produce policies that tackle emissions theoretically and in practice. For example, the global construction sector contributed around 23% to global carbon emissions in 2009 (according to Huang et al., 2018, who caveat this figure by acknowledging this includes fuel emissions during the transportation of materials, which is debatably ascribable to the logistics sector, rather than construction). Included in this figure is housing construction. In the UK, government policy to tackle high house prices and rising homelessness is to build more houses, sometimes on greenbelt land. This is to say, to respond to a class problem of housing access with an environmentally damaging solution of building more homes, despite there being more than enough vacant properties in the UK to house everyone. The same is true across Europe and America.
One may not think of housing as an environmental issue if one doesn’t consider class. Without this synthesis, the only solution to the housing crisis is to build more homes — not to acquire vacant properties, to ban second or third homes, to end landlords or the housing market entirely — and this means more construction, and more pollution. Without a class or structural — to invoke Marxist language — approach, policymaking to tackle environmental degradation may exist in a silo separate from policies which run counter to it. This will not tackle the climate emergency.
Ann Pettifor, author of the original Green New Deal proposal, uses a similar synthesis when thinking about how to finance the GND. She argues because private finance demands a greater return on investment, which in turn demands perpetual growth, private finance is incompatible with the ambitions of the GND, which includes curbing frivolous consumption and abandoning perpetual growth models. Without this class synthesis — and this is a class issue — a workable GND may not be possible.
If one is still unconvinced that class is inseparable from environmental policy, consider the French fuel tax which preceded the Gilets Jaunes protests. On paper, it is a good idea to enact policies which disincentivise the use of pollutants. But in practice, because poorer citizens in France tended to live in rural areas or commute into the cities, compared to wealthy citizens who can afford expensive inner-city property, it was a policy that was disproportionately class-biased. And it didn’t have to be. The French government could have invested money in rural transport networks, or better still, created economic zones in rural areas to incentivise business going to the workers, rather than workers going to the business.
These policies are class-biased too, but they’re biased against the most polluting class, which — if class is inseparable from environmental policy — should be the class which bears the greatest burden.
Of course, we are all in this together. We have one planet, and we all reside on it. But when there some who have taken and continue to take more out of the ecosystem than others, in putting back, we must ask these people to put back the most. For the alternative, to take disproportionately from those who have not reaped disproportionate benefits from the carbon age, will only result in resistance, inaction and ultimately failure. The apocalypse is a great equaliser, but it’s not the only one.