Income inequality and the climate

Income inequality is growing. At the same time, the pace of global warming is accelerating. Are these two trends related? I think so.

We know the ultra-rich are getting an ever-larger share of the nation’s income – in 2012 the 1 percent raked in 23 percent of total personal income. Though their share ticked down a little in the latest reported year, the trend is still upward.

Meanwhile, the frightening statistics about the pace of global warming just keep coming. The Bill McKibben-led climate action group,, was named for the parts per million of carbon dioxide that the earth’s atmosphere can hold without dangerous global warming. We’re already at 400 and going up 2 ppm every year. The now-too-familiar results of the consequent 1 degree Celsius temperature rise, according to the 350 website:

“Glaciers everywhere are melting and disappearing fast, threatening the primary source of clean water for millions of people. Mosquitoes, who like a warmer world, are spreading into lots of new places, and bringing malaria and dengue fever with them. Drought is becoming much more common.”


At the same time, sea levels are rising and could go up as much as several meters, which will inundate many of the world’s cities, island nations, and a significant amount of farmland. Ocean water is becoming more acidic as they absorb more and more CO2, spelling doom for animals like corals and clams.


Human-caused climate change has increased the odds of extreme, even unprecedented weather events.

“All around the globe, we’re stacking the deck for extreme weather — like hurricanes, typhoons, blizzards, and droughts — which exacerbates conflicts and security issues in regions that are already strapped for resources.”

The Arctic is losing sea ice faster than the direst predictions. Some estimates set the total volume of summer sea ice loss as high as 80 percent. If the Greenland ice sheet breaks down, there will be major methane releases from the consequent permafrost melt. And methane is an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

But those who profit from the extraction and sale of fossil fuels are blocking many of the most promising attempts to arrest and reverse climate change, thanks to the growing command the wealthiest U.S. families hold over the political and legislative process.

Many have noted the ever-stronger relationship between wealth and political power. The American Political Science Association formed a Task Force on Inequality and American Democracy, which “concluded that growing economic inequality was threatening fundamental American political institutions,” according to a New Yorker article by Jill Lepore.

The Supreme Court decision that opened the door to unlimited political contributions, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, has changed elections, a widely discussed phenomenon, according to a Huffington Post blog entry by Paul Blumenthal and Ryan Grim. “But the decision’s role in allowing that same money to soak the legislative process has largely gone unreported.”

The bloggers illustrate, in significant detail, ways in which the super-rich are now operating in the legislative arena, using their newly gained political clout to preserve and build on their dominant wealth.

In an example that bodes ill for the climate, Blumenthal and Grim explain how a former Republican National Committee chair and a former aide to John Boehner were hired as political operatives by Karl Rove’s super-rich super PAC. But they didn’t stay long, landing lobbyist jobs at the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a major Washington lobbying arm of the coal and railroad industry.

Coal-industry companies and executives on the board of that lobbying combine have “contributed more than $10 million to Republican outside groups,” according to the bloggers. “Republicans have, in turn, become increasingly vocal in their support for the coal industry and their opposition to any rule, regulation or idea — including belief in climate change driven by human action — that could harm the industry.”

So what do we do?

The Economic Policy Institute has a program spelled out in 11 policy initiatives that would “Raise America’s Pay,” thus reversing the income inequality trend. It includes raising the minimum wage, strengthening unions and collective bargaining rights, making the tax code more progressive and other much-needed changes.

Of course implementing that program would require action by a Congress that is, as we have noted, steadily more under the control of those who like things the way they are. Even so, I have little doubt that building a movement on behalf of EPI’s program would be a plus in the battle to keep earth inhabitable for humans.

Still, I think we need to focus on climate change. The Citizens Climate Lobby has a plan that makes a lot of sense to me. They would place an escalating tax on carbon and use all the proceeds from that tax to fund an equal rebate for each U.S. household. That would not only shift consumer spending and business investment away from fossil fuels, it would redistribute income downwards, since the wealthy have a much heavier carbon footprint than the rest of us and would thus pay more of the total carbon tax bill.

There are lots of other ideas out there in the battle against fossil fuels. But I can’t see real change coming until there’s a mass movement whose goal is to put climate change at the top of every political agenda at every level of government.

350 Egypt

350 Egypt

The seeds of the mass movement are there. Demonstrations triggered by have been recorded in every nation but North Korea. And actions by local groups have scored important victories against carbon.

I recently heard leaders from a couple of local groups talk about their successful organizing efforts. These two groups are especially good examples of how keeping a focus on the problem that has brought people to an organization is a formula for success:

  • PERRO in Chicago’s Mexican-American-dominated Pilsen community led a 10+-year fight that ended with the shutdown of two filthy, coal-burning power plants.
  • And the Southeast Environmental Task Force at the southern end of Chicago has been scoring significant victories over the Koch brothers and other oil-industry heavyweights. SETF has worked for several years to rid the area of pollution caused by the stockpiling of petroleum coke, a carbon-heavy oil-refinery by-product that is burned for fuel in some coal-fired plants.

Statewide, anti-fracking activists, spread out in local and regional groups from Chicago to deep Southern Illinois, have lost several legal battles. But their activism is paying off nonetheless. Though they lost battles to toughen the state’s new fracking law and then to toughen the regulations, the final results seem to have been something of a deterrent. No permits to proceed with hydraulic fracturing operations have yet been issued.

A bomb train recently exploded in Western Illinois.

A bomb train recently exploded in Western Illinois.

Lately fractivists in Chicago and downstate have taken up the battle against oil trains transporting crude through populated corridors after several recent explosions, some too close to Chicago for comfort, have shown the potential for a real disaster.

The “bomb trains” themselves are an indication of some anti-oil-extraction successes: the trains are mostly needed because various local groups around the country have slowed or stopped plans for pipelines that would get oil from tar sands and fracking fields to refineries or oil tankers. (An April 4 Chicago Tribune article estimated, based on recently released federal data, that more than 600 tank cars filled with crude oil go through the Chicago region daily.)Bold-Barn-Meme

Will the myriad local struggles reach a critical mass soon enough to head off catastrophe? Can someone stitch them together into a national movement? Can the existing national groups find common ground? How do we move, quickly, to where “yes” is the obvious answer to these crucial questions?

I emphasize “move quickly,” because I think time is running very short. When I retired, a bit more than two years ago, I came to the conclusion that global warming was a compelling issue, something on which I could spend at least some of my newly gained time. I was able to attend The People’s Climate March in New York last September. There was definitely a sense of urgency among the hundreds of thousands who also participated. But most of the millions who were within a few miles of our demonstration were going about business as usual. I wonder if we can spread that sense of urgency in time.

An historical note: The theory that organizing succeeds best in groups that stay focused on their main goal was first articulated in a way that stuck in my mind by my good friend Jack Weinberg. For him the idea was informed by his experience as a leader of a group that helped stop the construction of a nuclear power plant in Northwest Indiana.

4 thoughts on “Income inequality and the climate

  1. Thanks Boomer. The links between inequality and climate change are thought-provoking and suggest fruitful coalition possibilities. After reading Kolbert’s Sixth Extinction (highly recommended) it’s good to see some hopeful news about local activism.

  2. Good post. And if I could add just one more aspect to your well-reasoned argument: the super-rich tend to be clinically insane, their brains deformed by their unnatural lifestyles. What is truly bizarre is all the rich people who stand to lose massive amounts of money due to climate change but who do nothing about it – or are active deniers. Consider the insurance industry, or people who own real estate in south Florida (or Manhattan, for that matter). If these guys are such geniuses, why are they ignoring this enormous threat to their wealth? My personal opinion is that there are three answers: 1) ideological blinders; 2) obsessively short-term thinking, and 3) the conviction that their wealth will insulate them from whatever horrible suffering is inflicted on the rest of humanity.

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