"We have to figure out what kind of people are we going to be and what policies will help us be our best selves."
We are currently at a moment of extreme and rising global inequality. But rarely are the links made between the extremely wealthy and the personal liability these individuals have in contributing to potentially irreversible climate change and mass species extinction.
The polluter elite are extremely rich individuals whose net worth, luxury lifestyle and political influence all rest on wealth that is derived from investments in polluting activities, like fossil fuel production.
What differentiates the polluter elite from other stakeholders is that as major shareholders they profit from the fossil fuel economy.
As decision makers, they approve lobbying of governments, by funding lobbyists and making direct donations to political parties, to block the transition away from fossil fuels.
They use their political power to restrict the consumption options of ordinary citizens to keep them “addicted” to lifestyles dependent on fossil fuels – like diesel and petrol vehicles, plastic packaging, and the use of coal and gas for electricity, heating and cooking.
That’s why I’ve created a new tool to track just who has this wealth and power. The polluter elite database lists the names of executives and directors who are decision-makers at large multinational oil, gas and coal companies.
The objective of the database is to quantify personal responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions based on shareholding. This is different from emissions associated with personal consumption, like flying.
Investment emissions are based on the number of shares held in a polluting company. The shares held are used to calculate the percentage ownership of the company, and therefore the percentage of the company annual emissions. The main source to calculate investment emissions is the company annual report.
The companies listed in the database were taken from the Carbon Majors research by Richard Heede and Carbon Disclosure Project because they are the companies with the highest emissions. The date for which investment emissions are calculated is December 31, 2015. This is then applied to the annual company emissions for 2015. A specific date has to be used because shareholdings and other variable such as company annual emissions can change.
You can download the database and read more about the methodology behind it here. The database is accompanies the book, Carbon Inequality: The Role of the Richest in Climate Change, published this June, which goes into more detail about the connection between wealth, power, and pollution.
Addressing climate change can sometimes end up being an abstract exercise. The companies responsible can be seen as faceless and therefore difficult to influence. If we understand who has a personal stake in defending the fossil fuel status quo, we will have a better chance of accelerating the transition away from fossil fuels by directly weakening their economic and political power.
There will be no transition away from fossil fuels unless the polluter elite who run big oil and gas companies are weakened economically, politically and morally.
With UN reports on climate change and species extinction saying drastic action is needed in the next decade, we just do not have enough time for the polluter elite to block the transition to renewables either now or in the next election cycle. To permanently weaken their economic and political power the government in the UK, United States and elsewhere should:
- End subsidies to fossil fuel companies. For a long time many governments in countries like the U.S. and the UK have been using billions in taxpayers money to help these companies. Globally fossil fuel subsidies in 2015 were $4.7 trillion. This money could be redirected to the green transition in ways that guarantee jobs for people who no longer have a job in the fossil fuel sector.
- Phase out domestic extraction and imports of oil, gas and coal. Governments should coordinate an immediate phase out of domestic extraction and imports of oil, gas and coal. An immediate phase out of fossil fuels must be central to what is currently known as the Green New Deal. If this does not happen there will be a continuation of the growing renewable energy sector co-existing with fossil fuels which puts the world on course for irreversible climate change. Despite the recent announcement the UK will put a net zero emissions target by 2050 into law, the government is yet to phase out fossil fuels, which is what matters in practice.
Dario Kenner is a Visiting Fellow at the Global Sustainability Institute, Anglia Ruskin University, UK. He is the author of the book Carbon Inequality: The role of the richest in climate change (Routledge, 2019). This book builds on his 2015 working paper Inequality of Overconsumption: the Ecological Footprint of the Richest, published by Anglia Ruskin University.
Originally published by Why Green Economy.