Watching Elon Musk reveal himself in recent weeks as the world’s richest buffoon has certainly been entertaining. However, it could lead to the conclusion that billionaires are foolish but harmless, which is far from the case.
The real danger they pose to humanity is their huge and largely hidden role in the climate crisis.
Yes, they are often foolish. But they are rarely harmless. In fact, they are among the most dangerous people to walk the earth.
And I’m not just referring to their grabbing of resources while much of the world is starving. The real danger they pose to humanity is their huge and largely hidden role in the climate crisis.
The problem is twofold. First, a billionaire’s carbon footprint is gigantic.
In contrast, the poorest half of the world’s population – four billion people – barely contribute to climate change. On average, each person in this poor half of humanity contributes just 1.6 tons of carbon a year.
However, the average person in the top 1% of the world’s population contributes 110 tons of carbon annually, while the average person in the top 0.01% contributes a monstrous 2,531 tons. Meanwhile, a billionaire typically contributes a staggering 8,190 tons.
So while the ranks of the super-rich are small, their carbon emissions (from private jets, yachts, and multiple homes) are so immense — and rapidly growing — that they’re a key driver of climate change.
Now we come to the second part of the problem: their role as corporate owners directing huge reserves of capital into fossil fuel production and infrastructure.
In a new study, Oxfam notes that when billionaires’ investments are taken into account, their average emissions go from thousands of times that of an ordinary person to more than a million times greater.
Oxfam examined the investments of 125 billionaires and found they were leaning towards fossil fuels. If these billionaires shifted their investments to a fund that simply tracks the S&P 500, their issuance intensity would be cut in half.
Billionaires can clearly choose where to invest their money, but there are only rare exceptions to the pattern, such as Patagonian sportswear billionaire Yvon Chouinard, who has placed ownership of the company into a trust, declaring that “the Earth is now our sole shareholder”.
Most, however, use their capital – and the huge political clout that comes with it – in ways that increase our dependence on fossil fuels, whether by investing in their production and infrastructure or by influencing governments to block climate.
That influence can be seen at the COP27 climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, where more than 600 lobbyists and executives from fossil fuel-related industries are working hard, often seated right inside national delegations, to block progress. climate.
Canada’s official delegation includes eight industry stalwarts, including a senior vice president of the Royal Bank of Canada, which invests heavily in fossil fuels.
With that kind of insider seat, it’s no wonder there’s so little progress in these global climate rallies.
Given the gigantic carbon footprints of the mega-rich and their outsized political influence, the best hope of avoiding climate disaster may be wealth taxes that significantly reduce their wealth and power.
Oxfam says wealth taxes could help finance assistance to poor countries devastated by climate change, whose citizens have contributed almost nothing to the problem.
There are many other good reasons for introducing wealth taxes, which have been proposed by US Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and in Canada by NDP leader Jagmeet Singh.
But despite the popularity of such taxes, the urgency of the climate crisis and other needs, the momentum towards them has stalled.
Of course, the Trudeau government has never been interested, limiting itself to imposing extra taxes on the sales of luxury cars and yachts, taxes that have little impact on the super rich.
But if Prime Minister Justin Trudeau really were the posing climate warrior, he would listen less to the Royal Bank and more to groups desperate to save their countries from drowning in the waters of the rising sea.