We are often encouraged as individuals to reduce our personal impact on the climate, but the truth is some people’s actions have greater effect than others. The super-rich “polluter elite” immediately come to mind. But if, like us, you are college educated, have a white-collar job, live in a prosperous neighborhood or earn more than $38,000 (£28,000) a year, you are of “high socio-economic status” globally and you have disproportionate power and responsibility that will be critical for averting catastrophic climate change.
This group makes up the top 10 per cent of income globally and is responsible for half of the carbon pollution emitted by households. As you ascend the income scale to $109,000 (£80,000), you reach the global 1 per cent, whose individual climate pollution is 30 times above the sustainable limit for 2030. Collectively, this group emits as much as the poorest 4.75 billion people in the world.
The majority of this climate pollution is created through frequent and long-distance travel by plane and car, followed by home energy use. Reducing fossil energy overconsumption quickly is key to halting global warming.
But as we show in a new study, there are four other critical roles through which the 10 per cent leave an outsized climate footprint, and through which ambitious climate action can be promoted or hindered: where their money is invested, how they communicate with and behave around other people, the actions they press for in organisations, and as citizens. These are the ways individuals can most affect businesses, governments and society as a whole.
If you have a pension, or savings in investment accounts at a major bank, chances are you are currently financing climate destruction via loans and investments to expand and support fossil fuel pipelines and power plants. To support climate stability instead, shift your money from banks, pension funds and stocks that still finance fossil fuel companies and support campaigns to get universities, schools and businesses to divest from fossil fuels.
Social influence increases with status, but we all influence those around us through our words and, especially, our actions. We can use this influence with family, friends, neighbours and colleagues to promote climate-friendly aspirations and norms in our networks and communities. One simple way to wield this influence is through shifting social media posts away from celebrating conspicuous consumption of tropical holidays and fat steaks, and towards simpler pleasures of time with family and friends and in nature closer to home.
You can also press for climate action in the organisations where you work, play or study. Speak up for and drive policies for decarbonising industries and supply chains, and advocating for philanthropy. The recent Project Drawdown guide Climate Solutions at Work offers practical advice on how to make every job a climate job, while the Science Based Targets initiative sets pathways for companies to do their fair share to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.
As citizens, voting is a powerful climate action. Those of us lucky enough to live in the 18 per cent of countries that meet high democratic standards should use this power. Until now, political access and influence have mainly been used to promote fossil fuel and other corporate interests in policy-making. This can change by making climate a leading political and election issue through social mobilisation and lobbying, and by holding representatives accountable for their climate votes and directly contacting them, especially as many representatives report feeling very little pressure from their constituents to take climate action.
Climate impacts and social inequality are currently a vicious circle: those who cause the most harm suffer the least. Recommendations for personal climate actions are too often misdirected towards those with low potential emissions reductions, like recycling, or presented as being universally applicable, when it is in fact especially the well-off who need to change behaviour to reduce global emissions.
The way forward is to recognise that we need both behaviour and policy change to accelerate climate mitigation and to allow everyone to meet their needs without wrecking the climate. Wealthier individuals have both special agency and responsibility to take decisive climate action. Reducing overconsumption of fossil fuels is one key step to a fast, clean energy transition. But equally critical will be mobilising people to use their investments, networks, organisational influence and political voice to turn the ship around.
Kristian Steensen Nielsen is an environmental psychologist at the University of Cambridge. @kristiansn89
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