If you've spent time following the US Presidential Election recently or seen some of the controversy surrounding Amazon, there's a chance you could have seen many calling to "abolish billionaires". The call to abolish billionaires embodies a criticism of the existence of the incredibly wealthy while extreme poverty exists and asks the question, is it ethical for one person to hold so much wealth? The answer to this question is, of course , no (for those who are calling for the end of billionaires). Whilst this movement has gained recent traction thanks to US Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, it's far from a new idea, and when Jeff Bezos became the world's first hectobillionaire (that's $100,000,000,000) in 2018, many shared the sentiments that building such wealth (from the exploitation of people and planet at that) is not okay.
Let's back up for a minute here and look at the counter arguments. The counter arguments for this movement are that the majority of billionaires exist in countries where wealth gaps are less severe and that some billionaires have obtained their wealth through commendable efforts, such as german billionaire Aloys Wobben (net worth $3.5 billion) who founded Enercon, one of the world's largest Windmill producers, which has then allowed them to do great philanthropic work.
This is true, and we know that billionaires such as Bill Gates have provided important funding in helping many communities not only fight, but withstand climate change. But the links between extreme wealth and climate change run deeper than that, and in order to address climate change we must look at how our economy allows for the creation of such wealth and what that means.
We're going to outline some of the ways that the billionaires debate overlaps with the climate crisis and why calling for the end to billionaires is not as unthinkable as it may first appear.
The capitalist system has been a dream for billionaires. It has allowed them to rise into immense wealth quickly and this has often come at high price to people and the environment.
I mentioned the good deeds of billionaires like Aloys Wobben earlier, and while the wealthy few sometimes have the power to enforce positive change ( for example when the government is failing on climate), the net positives of these deeds are questionable when we scrutinise the system and economy they exist in. These good deeds become less commendable when we weigh up their impact. The first and largest impact of the extremely wealthy is that how much money you earn translates directly into how big your environmental impact is, and that extravagant lifestyles use far more natural resources. Research released by Oxfam found that the world's richest 10 percent of people have carbon footprints that are 60 times higher as the poorest 10 percent, and similarly, more than 71 percent of global emissions are produced by no more than100 companies. What this indicates is that billionaires will produce lots of CO2 emissions.
And these carbon emissions will also not be affecting the 1% of billionaires who emit them, and in an article by the Global Citizen, it was highlighted how "The world's poorest communities often live on the most fragile land, and they are often politically, socially, and economically marginalised, making them especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change".
So what would the world be like without billionaires and how can we redistribute that wealth?
Politicians such as Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez all call for a wealth tax to be implemented on the massively wealthy and believe that this can be used as a method for addressing inequality. At the moment it's hard to imagine how exactly this would play out (but it's good to learn more about it) and we know that it's a step in the right direction. Magazines such as Forbes Brazil have also run campaigns imagining a world without billionaires which have weighed up their impacts such as job creation with the amount of oil per day that they release. Other organizations and people have also produced infographics such as these and this which put into perspective just how much money billionaires make and how it could be better spent.
If Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos spent their whole life using plastic straws and driving diesel trucks the impact on the environment may not change too much. However if they decide to invest all their money in diesel truck start ups, oil refineries, and climate denying politicians (similarly to what billionaires such as the Koch brothers have done) the impact on the planet will be huge. The fate of the climate should not lie in a few hands. Equal wealth distribution should allow more people to make greater change.
There are a number of approaches we can take to address this (many of which we have outlined in this article) but ultimately we know that fighting climate change at an institutional level will require us to restructure our global economic and political systems. And many of us have realised that systems centred on economic growth are no longer sustainable.
Written by Frances Housdon
Fran is a young South African journalism graduate passionate about the outdoors, and getting other people to enjoy them with her. She loves paddling down long rivers, exploring big mountains and consuming bulk quantities of peanut butter.