Climate Change, Income Inequality, and Social Justice

Posted by Richard Beach, May 17, 2019

Climate change is deeply related to issues of economic inequality and questions of social justice. The rich have far larger “carbon footprints” and can use their wealth, at least in the short run, to protect themselves from climate change impacts. Wealth distribution has become dramatically more unequal in recent years in the United States. The Walton family, inheritors of the Walmart fortune, own more wealth than 40% of all other Americans combined (Sanders, 2018). That’s more than 130 million Americans!

Inequality is skyrocketing even within the Forbes 400 list of America’s richest people. In today’s dollars, the net worth of the richest member of the Forbes 400 has soared from $5 billion in 1982 to $160 billion in 2018 (

Inequality of wealth is a climate change issue: higher-income people produce far more emissions from transportation and housing. The world’s richest 1% produces 50% of greenhouse gas emissions, and the bottom 50% of the world’s population produces only 10%, creating a system that Oxfam calls “extreme carbon inequality.”

This concentration of wealth has also meant that the wealthy, including the Koch Brothers, contribute to politicians who foster deregulation efforts to oppose attempts to implement carbon fees or the Green New Deal. For example, when the citizens of Nashville were about to approve a referendum supporting building a mass-transit system to help lower-income people access their jobs, the Koch Brothers funded a massive opposition campaign that resulted in the referendum being defeated (Tabuchi, 2018).

Inequality also becomes a health issue given that power plants generating air pollution are more likely to be located near lower-income family neighborhoods/schools resulting in adverse health impacts on those neighborhoods/schools. Climate change will have a particularly adverse impact on low-income people in areas of the South and Midwest given increases in heat/droughts, resulting in a shift in wealth to the cooler areas of the Northeast, Northwest, and Great Lakes region, only increasing economic inequality in America, as described in a Climate One at the Commonwealth Club: Winners and Losers podcast and in this Economist Magazine report.

In an interview with Robert Bullard (aka: “the father of environmental justice”), he notes the need for climate change/green groups to support local environmental justice organizations coping with issues of poverty and discrimination associated with the adverse effects of pollution on poorer neighborhoods/schools (Nexus Media, 2018). Bullard posits that:

“The best and the most potent predictor of health and well-being in all of our cities across the country is a ZIP code. You tell me your ZIP code, and I can tell you how healthy [you] are…. If we neglect the least powerful and the most vulnerable, we run the risk of making it worse for everybody. We saw that in Hurricane Katrina when we didn’t take care of the levees in the lowest-income communities. That’s obvious to many communities on the ground who are facing the ravages of climate right now. For them, it’s not a debate. It’s not theory. It’s real. For workers who work outside, they know it’s getting hotter. They know it’s more difficult to work outside, and they know that if it’s too hot to work, or if it’s raining every day, they can’t do their job, and they’re losing money…We have to really be forward thinking in terms of how we’re going to build and grow our progressive movement to deal with these issues that we’re talking about — housing, energy, transportation, food security, health. We have to converge these issues. Climate change and energy and civil rights and environmental justice —it’s all wrapped together.” Dr. Robert Bullard (interview)

Addressing This Issue in the ELA Classroom

ELA teachers can help students address this issue through having them investigate how climate change is related to disparities in income in their own communities. For example, students can use the National Institute of Health TOXMAP to identify emissions levels of power plants in their community and the E.P.A.’s mapping tool, EJScreen to connect emissions levels from these plants with adverse health effects associated with poverty and race for those communities. Based on this data, they can then generate statements for their local city/town councils on the need to address this issue.

Students can also examine how societies with high levels of economic inequality impact climate change, the focus of the Roosevelt Institute report Boiling Points: The Inextricable Links Between Inequality and Climate Change, by Susan Holmberg (see also Cimons’ (2017) summary). Lower-income people are not able to afford to retrofit their homes or purchase solar panels or newer, more fuel-efficient cars, so that requires more energy. They may also not be able to afford homes near where they work. This means that they purchase homes further away from their work, so that they must then drive further distances, which only increases emissions. One example of the intersection between wealth disparities and climate change is evident in what Richard Florida (2018) describes as “climate gentrification,” evident in cities impacted by sea rise. In these cities, properties at higher elevations become more valuable while properties at lower elevations, susceptible to flooding, become less valuable, the result being that lower income owners, many of whom do not have flood insurance or cannot afford to move elsewhere, are more likely to be impacted by climate change.

English language arts students can research the adverse effects of climate change on lower-income/poor people (see video on Environmental Inequality produced by War on the Future). A report by the World Bank indicates that unless there is marked action by 2030 to reduce emissions, given the adverse effects of climate change, 100 million more people will be living in poverty (Barrón-López, 2019).

Nearly all climate change “cli-fi” and post-apocalyptic literature portray dramatic class differences. A good example of such literature is the YA novel Ship Breaker by Paulo Bacigalupi. This popular, fast paced, and teachable novel contrasts the existence of Nailer, a teenage boy struggling to live by dismantling fossil fuel fired ships no longer in use, with Nita, a rich girl who Nailer rescues from a magnificent shipwrecked sail powered trading ship owned by her father. As students look at class differences portrayed in literature, they can ask questions such as “How does climate change impact differently the lives of rich and poor? Which social classes bear the greater responsibility for climate change? Whose interests does the government serve?

Students can also examine proposed policies associated with redistribution of wealth connected to addressing climate change (Huber, 2018) and related to the Green New Deal. For example, the proposed carbon fees on fossil fuels would result in a distribution of funds from those fees to the population. Another option related to the Green New Deal involves pushing for more clean, renewable energy options to lower the cost of energy, through increases in government support/tax rebates for solar panels, windmills, and transmission lines. Students could examine the counter-arguments to these proposals related to political opposition to “increased costs” in public/government spending efforts vs. corporate/private control of utilities, to then generate their own arguments based on issues of economic inequality and social justice.


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