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Solving the climate crisis means tackling global inequality

by Harjeet Singh | harjeet11 | ActionAid International- India
Tuesday, 26 May 2015 08:00 GMT

An environmental activist marches at the "People's Climate March" in downtown Lima, Dec. 10, 2014. REUTERS/ Mariana Bazo

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The wealthiest control polluting industries, and reap profits from them, while the poorest suffer the impacts

Around the world, some 2 billion people continue to live in poverty while the number of billionaires is soaring. Unequal access to productive resources, basic services and opportunities is the main explanation for this.

Inequality influenced by concentration of wealth has increased over the years. Forbes reported that the number of billionaires in the world doubled from 793 in 2009 to 1,645 in February 2014.

These billionaires together hold $6.4 trillion in wealth, while the 3.3 billion adults in the world with less than $10,000 to their name hold a combined total of $7.6 trillion.

In 2014, Credit Suisse researchers estimated that individuals with over $1 million in wealth - the richest 0.7 percent of adults worldwide - held 44 percent of global net worth.  

ActionAid believes the world has reached peak plutocracy. Plutocracy is a society or a system ruled and dominated by a small minority of the wealthiest.

Its manifestations include the sacrifice of tax revenues in developing countries to lure foreign investment; accumulation of land and natural resources by private companies; undermining workers' rights to attract business; privatisation of schools and healthcare; violation of human rights through the collusion of multinational corporations and governments; and crushing of voices from social movements.

When power is concentrated in the hands of the few, it inevitably leads to the corruption of democratic systems, which is fatal for both society and the environment.


The climate crisis we face today is a result of greenhouse gas emissions produced by careless industrialisation in the West over the last 150 years.

Developed countries are responsible for over 70 percent of historic cumulative greenhouse gas emissions. This amount, which has been steadily rising since industrialisation began, forms the bulk of emissions currently warming the atmosphere and is the main cause of climate change.

In the last few years, emissions in developing countries - where 80 percent of the world’s population lives - have also risen substantially owing to their growing industrialisation and energy needs.

Notably, much of the carbon output of countries such as China is generated as a result of producing goods that are ultimately consumed in richer nations.

The climate crisis is systemic in nature. It is the wealthiest who control the polluting industries, and reap profits from the products of pollution. But it is the poorest and most vulnerable who have to carry the burden - either by living in polluted environments, or suffering the impacts of climate change.

The wealth created by extracting resources and low-wage work from poorer communities acts as a shield for the rich, leaving the most vulnerable to cope with the consequences.

Ironically, developing countries - themselves victims of global inequality - are being tricked into emulating the same economic model that advances plutocracy and damages the environment.  

Policies such as promoting private cars over public transport, commodifying natural resources and encouraging industrial agriculture by betraying smallholder agro-ecological farming will aggravate climate change.

Any development model that is based on inequality will only exacerbate injustice.


A flagship 2014 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) indicated that during the 21st century, global surface temperature is likely to rise by an average 4.8 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels, if dramatic emissions cuts are not undertaken urgently.

Climate impacts such as extreme weather events, sea-level rise, drought and disruption of water and food supplies are already affecting millions, particularly in developing countries.

Yet rich nations continue to offer market-based 'false solutions' that promote the interests of their private corporations.

Instead of making substantive emissions reductions at home and meeting their obligations to provide public finance to developing countries for sustainable development, they are trying to profit from the climate crisis.

Solutions such as industrial biofuels,  carbon markets, so-called “climate-smart agriculture”, carbon capture and storage (CCS), geo-engineering and the newly framed “net zero emissions” concept are dangerous diversions.

They are designed to benefit large corporations, mainly in the oil, gas and agribusiness industries, and their backers, and can harm communities through land grabs, indebtedness or even disrupting weather systems, for example.


The national climate change action plans - technically called INDCs (Intended Nationally Determined  Contributions) - received so far in the run-up to December’s U.N. climate talks in Paris from developed countries such as the United States, Canada, the European Union and Norway are far off their 'fair share' contribution in relation to their responsibility and capacity to act.

Large corporations and complicit rich governments have been largely successful in preventing systemic transformation of our societies and economies to solve the climate crisis. They are sentencing our species, and most others, to death or to increasingly difficult struggles to survive and lead a dignified life. This cannot continue.

As we prepare for the climate deal due in Paris, world leaders must wake up to the fact that transformative change is needed to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius - the limit beyond which climate impacts will become potentially catastrophic, especially for the world’s poor.

While the scale of the challenge is enormous, people already have solutions and alternatives that work at the scale we need. From decentralised community-owned renewable energy for mitigation, to agro-ecological methods for adaptation, there exists a wealth of proven ideas and experience from which to build a global transformation.

Historical responsibility for causing and addressing climate change is intrinsically tied to countries’ wealth. Rich nations must provide compensation and reparations to address worsening climate impacts and help build vulnerable communities’ resilience to climate change.

Transformation requires the democratisation of power at all levels. This means addressing power imbalances - between women and men; policymakers and citizens; rich and poor; markets and people.