From Climate Villains To Heroes? How The Rich Can Weaponize Their Influence To Fight Global Warming
From tech entrepreneurs to Hollywood A-listers, the world’s elite have increasingly found themselves on the receiving end of public criticism for their extravagant, high-carbon lifestyles, as the rest of society struggles to drive down the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing climate change.
Now, researchers in Europe have indicated that the rich, through their disproportionate influence in the media, in popular culture and in decision-making circles, have an outsized potential to alter behaviors in multiple ways that benefit the planet—perhaps offering the world’s wealthiest a way out of climate purgatory.
In an article published in the journal Nature Energy, researchers detail how “high-socioeconomic-status people” can have “a disproportionate impact on energy-driven greenhouse gas emissions and potentially on climate change mitigation” through five distinct roles: as “consumers, investors, role models, organizational participants and citizens.”
As individual consumers, the more obviously harmful behaviors of the wealthy—such as private jet use and the purchasing of gas-guzzling supercars—are well known. Less discussed are relatively inconspicuous actions, such as investing in polluting companies and executive decision-making that creates climate impacts. A report compiled by Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute last year calculated that the richest 1% of people emit double the greenhouse gases generated by the poorest 50%.
But the authors of the Nature article argue that while the media have focused largely on the personal contributions to climate change made by the wealthy, example-setting behavior wields a potentially far greater climate impact, given that millions aspire to attain such lifestyles. In this way, by being seen driving hybrid or electric vehicles rather than gasoline-hungry SUVs, or announcing investments in climate-conscious companies, the wealthy can “play a central role in diffusing new low-emissions technologies and behaviors.”
Referring to the roles high-net-worth individuals play, Kristian Nielsen, the article’s lead author and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Psychology, told me: “I believe action in any of the five roles has the potential to be very powerful. But I would probably say the behaviors that have the greatest potential [are those that] reduce the climate footprint of other people in addition to their own.”
“This could technically be done through all the roles,” he continued. “But examples may be by affecting the policies and actions of the large organizations they’re part of; by being a role model of a low-carbon lifestyle by ‘practicing what they preach’; and to mobilize around climate action, ideally in synchrony with fellow high-socioeconomic-status people, to affect public policies and corporate behavior and investments.”
Nielsen and colleagues came up with a definition of high-socioeconomic-status individuals that took into account income and wealth, as well as level of education, occupational status and residential area. The definition used was deliberately broad, from people earning “just” $109,000, to the world’s multibillionaires.
Just as a politician could exert more influence over the community than a regular member of the public, the authors noted that a CEO could exert much greater leverage to implement low-carbon policies in their organization than the average employee. “Their decision to, say, implement a vegetarian food policy or be supplied by renewable energy can have implications that greatly transcend their own carbon footprint,” Nielsen said. “The same could be said of people who are role models to others, such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Al Gore, or [climate researcher and author] Michael Mann, so when they communicate climate-friendly behavioral changes via their platforms they can inspire others to undertake similar changes.”
Such recommendations ought to be particularly relevant to music stars and social media influencers, whose success rests on widespread appeal among young people—in particular Generation Z—who are predominantly concerned with the threat of climate change.
But would the findings be enough to influence the influencers?
“Frankly put, they [high-net-worth individuals] could get on the right side of history,” said Nielsen. “The consequences of climate change will be catastrophic unless the world changes course, and I’m not convinced this will be desirable for anyone—not even if you’re a billionaire.
“Having said that,” he added, “I suspect changing behaviors to benefit the climate might offer reputational benefits, with an opportunity for making financially smart investments, and improved physical and mental health—for example from adopting a plant-based diet, lower air pollution, living in greener and biodiverse environments, or from acting pro-socially or environmentally.”
The article, titled “The role of high-socioeconomic-status people in locking in or rapidly reducing energy-driven greenhouse gas emissions,” can be viewed here.