Are the Super-wealthy Climate Superheroes or Climate Supervillains?

Performativity, or the potential to create lasting change? Lucy Allis examines the role of the super-wealthy in combatting climate change.

Recently there have been lots of news stories about billionaires pumping money into climate change, particularly carbon capture. This seems entirely positive on the surface, particularly because we’re always hearing about how expensive climate change is, and it gets people talking about it. But, some of these pledges and prizes have been described as ‘hollow and egotistical’ and only a small dent in the money needed to halt climate change. There’s also an argument that the super-wealthy use more resources and cause more emissions than anyone else. So, what is the role of the super rich in the fight against climate change?

When I say super-rich, I am referring to the richest people in the world, like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates. These people can also be called Ultra-High Net Worth Individuals or UHNWIs, who have assets of more than $30 million. Most examples of the super rich contributing to climate change causes come in the form of funding carbon capture. Some offer prizes for finding carbon capture solutions, such as Elon Musk’s $100 million competition or the $25 million Virgin Earth Challenge. Similarly the Earthshot Prize, set up by Prince William, will divide a total of £65 million between 5 prize winners over 10 years. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, centres his contributions around carbon capture, with pledges of $10 billion to environmental organisations.

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By investing money in certain areas, the super rich can potentially influence market dynamics and channel investment into important areas. For example, the $2 million Climate Pledge Fund set up by Jeff Bezos invests in start-ups that are working in carbon capture. This means that these companies can be financially supported. Billionaires have actually driven 80% of the 40 main innovations over the last 40 years. These investments can also direct the flow of other investments away from fossil fuels and towards sustainable companies or emerging technology. Philanthropy can not only influence markets, but also governments. Funding NGOs, charities and panels can influence work and also direct governments to emerging areas of research or concern. As a non-climate example, look at how Marcus Rashford’s work raised awareness and these issues made their way into parliament.

Philanthropy also raises awareness and directs public conversation towards climate issues. For example, Bill Gates has 6.5 million followers on Instagram, 54.5 million on Twitter and 22 million on Facebook. Compared to someone like Greta Thunberg, who has 11 million, 4.9 million and 3 million respectively, Bill Gates has an enormous amount of outreach. Therefore, any conversation Bill Gates has about climate change will reach a large audience. Even if this audience is not that receptive, it may be something they had not talked about before. This not only distributes information, but also connects people and possibly pushes them to change their own behaviours.

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But is this hypocritical? Climate research consistently focuses on the poor, particularly in how this group may contribute to fast fashion or emissions from transport. However, research has shown that it is the wealthy who are really the problem, but their wealth and social position allows them to disconnect themselves from climate change. They are less likely to be affected by natural disasters, they have greater financial flexibility and they can shield themselves more easily from environmental problems. Although the super-rich are highly visible on social media, data on their incomes, lifestyles, consumption etc is not very visible, which reduces their accountability. Other research has found that the rich are more to blame than other groups, as on average the wealthiest tenth of people consume 20 times more energy than the bottom ten. The average carbon footprint of someone in the richest 1% in the world could be 175 times the carbon footprint of someone in the poorest 10%.

This void comes from several things, with transport being the biggest. People on lower incomes tend not to be able to drive, which of course releases greenhouse gases, whereas the ultra-rich drive more and are the most frequent flyers. So, if the super-rich contribute the most to climate change, then putting money in foundations seems to miss the root of the problem altogether. As an example, in 2020 Amazon’s carbon emissions rose by 15%, which is not balanced out by Jeff Bezos’ $10 billion pledge. Instead of creating prizes and foundations, perhaps the super-rich need to be examining their own consumption.

Image Credits: DarkmoonArt_de

Another criticism is that these donations, prizes and foundations do not really do anything. Halting climate change will cost trillions of dollars, and even that estimate is very rough. But, halting emissions growth is estimated to cost about $300 billion – in 2017 there were over 36 million adults with net assets above $1 million. Theoretically, if the super-rich were to give more of their worth to climate change, this figure is pretty realistic. The direction of this money also matters. Whilst carbon capture is a really important part of hitting net zero, it will not fix all our problems. Most of the real change has to come from governments and societal change. So, the super-rich could use their power and their money to invoke real change.

So, are the super-wealthy climate superheroes or climate super-villains? My conclusion is that they are neither. They have the potential to play a really important role in the fight against climate change through funding research, raising awareness and directing governments. But, until they take responsibility for their emissions and introduce some sincerity into their actions, this funding will feel hollow, particularly if it is not directed to the right places.

Lucy Allis is a Sustainability Masters student. She runs a blog called Waste Makes Waste and @waste_makes_waste on Instagram.

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