April 22, 2024

Private property meets planetary crisis

Author: Verena Wolf

The link between inequality and the climate crisis is undisputable; one cannot be tackled without the other. To illustrate this point, here are just a few examples: Tourism on small islands flourishes for those who can afford it. At the same time, sea-level rise—a direct consequence of climate change—threatens the Indigenous communities living on these islands. Natural hazards, such as Hurricane Katrina in the US in 2005, hit poor and marginalised BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) communities harder than rich households because of the location of their neighbourhoods, the construction of their buildings, and poor government responses. Worldwide, women are more exposed to the threats of climate change than cis men because they are more often responsible for and dependent on agricultural activity and care work. As a rule of thumb, we can say that those who have polluted the least are affected the most (both states and individuals). And those who have contributed the most can feel safer from the disastrous effects of the changing climate. As the examples show, these patterns of inequality hold across various intersecting discriminatory structures, including the North-South divide, race, class, gender, ability, and residency. This blog post is about the causes of climate change with particular emphasis on the role of private property. 

Carbon Inequality: The Emissions of the Top 1%

To empirically investigate the link between inequality and the causes of climate change, carbon inequality is an important starting point. Addressing carbon inequality is a rather recent empirical undertaking that was brought to public attention in 2015 when Oxfam published a report on the inequality between income groups in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. The report presents the divergence of accumulated emissions between income groups based on consumption. The latest update of the Oxfam report reminds us that between 1990 and 2015—in just 25 years—the same amount of carbon dioxide and equivalents (750Gt) was emitted as in the previous 140 years combined. In this short but significant period, the report continues, the richest 10% of the world’s population were responsible for more than half of these cumulative emissions (52%), because of their consumption patterns. The report shows that the richer you are, the bigger your footprint is: The top 1% are even more polluting, accounting for 15% of the total cumulative emissions. In contrast, the poorest 50% of the world’s population between 1990 and 2015 had an emissions share of only 7%. This means that the emissions of the richest 1% are twice as high as those of the poorest 50%. This inequality is also termed ‘the great carbon divide.’

Another recent study by Barros and Wilk takes a closer look at the consumption patterns and lifestyles of the richest 1%. The study examines the carbon footprints of twenty billionaires from the Forbes Richest World’s Billionaires List who can be considered a sample of the richest 1%, including prominent names such as Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates. These individuals’ emissions are estimated to amount to 163,886 metric tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year. Yachting accounts for 64.2% of the calculated emissions, transport for 33.4% and housing for ‘only’ 2.3%. In absolute terms, this means that each billionaire’s multiple dwellings alone typically emit 190 tonnes of CO2 per year, and a billionaire’s average-length yacht (84 metres) emits 7,018 tonnes per year. For comparison: The average German citizen emits 10.5 tonnes per year. To comply with the Paris Agreement’s goal of keeping the global mean temperature below 1.5°C, each person needs to stay below one tonne per year.

Let’s Talk about the Rich

You may think that this is not surprising at all. Isn’t it obvious that those who own a lot emit a lot? Well, the responsibilities for the causes of climate change have been mixed up on the international policy level for a long time. Here, the fight against climate change is entangled with the fight against poverty. While one goal of poverty alleviation is to decrease the vulnerability of disadvantaged groups, another proclaimed aim is to decrease pollution. Poverty is an alleged source of pollution, and is tackled not only for the sake of the groups living in poverty, but also, it is claimed, in order to mitigate climate change. This striking assertion goes back to the so-called Brundtland Report in the 1980s. At the beginning of the 1980s, the UN General Assembly established a commission, the World Commission on Environment and Development, led by Gro Harlem Brundtland, which was supposed to provide policy solutions to rising environmental problems such as the climate crisis and development concerns. The result was the ‘Brundtland Report,’ published in 1986 with the title “Our Common Future.” The report is well known for defining the term ‘sustainable development’ and has shaped international policy agendas since its publication. The commission’s vision entailed “a new era of growth” to eradicate poverty and halt environmental degradation. Poverty, however, was identified not only as an effect, but also as a purported cause of environmental degradation. The report's authors state, “But poverty itself pollutes the environment, creating environmental stress in a different way. Those who are poor and hungry will often destroy their immediate environment in order to survive”, p.140. In the paper “Our Common Future–Call for Action”, Gro Harlem Brundtland summarizes the report’s main result and puts it even more clearly, writing, “The commission found that poverty is a main source, as well as an effect, of environmental degradation. This applies equally to poverty of the individual and to impoverishment of nations”, p.292.

The Brundtland Report was highly influential in shaping international environmental policy because it became the foundational document for several international conferences to come, including the environmental conference in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The report established the narrative that poverty is a state of technological deprivation and thus a contributor to environmental pollution. This narrative kills two birds with one stone: Economic development, i.e. economic growth and technology, becomes the solution to both climate change and poverty alike. This narrative has prevailed until today. As a result, climate change has become another ‘development project’ connected to capitalist interests. (This is also expressed in several projects in the name of sustainability that have led to land grabbing, deforestation, or green grabbing.) That is why the empirical results of carbon inequality are groundbreaking: They prove this entire narrative wrong. It is not the poorest who pollute the environment; it is the richest who pollute massively and disproportionately. Poverty alleviation might indeed be necessary to increase the resilience of marginalised groups and to reduce their exposure to the adverse effects of climate change. But this is only about adaptation. If we are serious about reducing emissions and mitigating climate change, it is the other end of the scale that needs to be addressed: the rich.

The Role of Private Property

What the Oxfam report brings forth is that GHG pollution is an additional and accelerating layer of inequality worldwide, with the rich being highly responsible for the climate crisis. Public awareness of this fact appears to be increasing. One way to address this layer of inequality is to contemplate the role of private property. Private property here does not refer to consumable (and depletable) goods and services, but, rather, to solid material objects, such as houses, cars, planes and yachts. All of these facilitate consumption, as the study by Barros and Wilk has shown. The more privately owned houses, cars, planes and yachts one owns, the greater the possible consumption and thus higher the daily emissions. An enormous amount of materiality is appropriated, extracted, produced and put into these goods and grounds—and emissions are generated in their production. To run the accumulated private property, fuel is needed, which again entails a huge amount of emissions. This means that private property creates not only a social divide between those who own too much and those who own too little but also an ecological one. In other words, it creates inequality in a double interconnecting sense — social and ecological.

In advanced modern capitalist societies such as Germany, the UK or the U.S., private property appears to many to be something natural. However, private property is the result of social processes and legal engineering and is deeply rooted in Western epistemology (ways of knowing). Historically, this is evident in social struggles over common land, such as in the transition from feudalism to capitalism, in enslavement, and in colonialism, when European settlers claimed the land of Indigenous communities. Private property is essentially a legal right, i.e. a constructed legal relationship between owners and non-owners over a materiality. What is propertised and what is not is the result of (violent) social processes as much as of who owns and who does not. As such, property rights determine relationships between one person and all other beings. This is different from contractual rights, which concern only two parties. Legally, property owners are responsible for their property — except when it comes to emissions. Recent studies on carbon inequality bring pollution to the forefront and link property to planetary dimensions: The ecological implications of private property rights have intensified to the point of overshooting planetary boundaries.

Conclusion: Private Property Meets Planetary Crisis

To hold private property to such an extent that it accumulates into emissions that affect everyone else (and all other species) raises the question of whether there are, within the Western legal institutions and epistemologies, planetary boundaries to what can be privately owned. To mitigate climate change, consumption patterns have to change, and this must start with those who can afford it. So far, Western philosophical considerations of climate justice have largely focused on consumption, but not on the role of private property in facilitating consumption. At the same time, greenhouse gas emissions have not been comprehensively included in a critique of private property. Today, when demands of global justice overlap with those of climate justice, we cannot further ignore the role of private property in the crises of inequality and climate change.