People with high socio-economic status have a disproportionately large influence on greenhouse gas emissions. Directly through their consumption and indirectly through their financial and social opportunities. Nevertheless, climate protection measures are hardly aimed at this population group and the possibilities of such initiatives have hardly been explored. Climate protection strategies must aim to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of the elites. Regardless of which strategies are preferred, whether persuasion and persuasion or political and fiscal measures, the role of these elites with their high consumption and their political and financial power to hinder or promote climate justice must be included. Five scientists from the fields of psychology, sustainability research, climate research, sociology and environmental research recently published an article in the journal nature energy (1). How is “high socio-economic status” defined? Primarily through income and wealth. Income and wealth largely determine status and influence in society, and they have a direct impact on the ability to consume. But people with a high socio-economic status also have an influence on greenhouse gas emissions through their roles as investors, as citizens, as members of organizations and institutions and as social role models.

Most emissions are caused by the elites

The richest 1 percent causes 15 percent of consumption-related emissions. The poorest 50 percent, on the other hand, together cause only half as much, namely 7 percent. Many super-rich with assets over $ 50 million who use private jets to commute between multiple residences around the world have an immensely high carbon footprint. At the same time, these people will be least affected by the consequences of climate change. Studies also show that greater social inequality within a country is generally associated with higher greenhouse gas emissions and less sustainability. This is due on the one hand to the consumption of these people with high status and on the other hand to their influence on politics. Three forms of consumption are responsible for most of the greenhouse gas emissions of the rich and super-rich: air travel, automobiles and real estate.

The plane

 Of all forms of consumption, flying is the one with the highest energy consumption. The higher the income, the higher the emissions from air travel. And vice versa: Half of all global emissions from air travel are caused by the richest percent (see also this post). And if the richest percent in Europe were to forego air travel altogether, these people would save 40 percent of their personal emissions. Global air traffic releases more CO2 into the atmosphere than all of Germany. The rich and influential often lead hypermobile lives and travel by air both privately and professionally. Partly because their income allows them, partly because the flights are paid for by the company, or partly because flying business class is part of their status. The authors write that little research has been done on how “plastic”, that is, how influenceable this mobility behavior is, has been researched. To the authors, changing social norms around this hypermobility seems to be an important lever for reducing emissions from this area. Frequent fliers are more likely to reduce the number of their flights than people who might book a flight once a year to visit their family.

Das Auto

 Motor vehicles, i.e. mainly cars, account for the largest share of per capita emissions in the USA and the second largest in Europe. For the largest emitters of CO2 emissions (again one percent), CO2 from motor vehicles makes up one fifth of their personal emissions. Switching to public transport, walking and cycling has the greatest potential for reducing these traffic-related emissions. The effect of switching to battery-powered vehicles is assessed differently, but will in any case increase when electricity generation is decarbonised. High income people could lead this transition to e-mobility as they are the main buyers of new cars. Over time, e-cars would then also reach the used car market. But in order to limit global warming, the ownership and use of vehicles must also be restricted. The authors emphasize that this use depends heavily on the existing infrastructure, i.e. how much space is made available to pedestrians and cyclists. The higher the income, the more likely people are to own a heavy car with high emissions. But also those who strive for social status can strive to own such a vehicle. According to the authors, people with a high social status could help establish new status symbols, for example living in a pedestrian-friendly environment. During the current Covid-19 pandemic, emissions have decreased temporarily. For the most part, this decrease was caused by less road traffic, not least because many people were working from home. And the jobs where this is possible are mainly those with higher incomes.

The Villa

The well-known one percent is also responsible for a large part of emissions from the residential sector, namely 11 percent. These people own larger houses or apartments, have several residences and use household goods with high energy consumption, such as central air conditioning. On the other hand, people with high incomes have more opportunities to reduce their emissions through measures with high initial costs, for example to replace heating systems or install solar panels. The switch to renewable energies has the greatest potential in this area, followed by extensive renovations to improve energy efficiency and the conversion to energy-saving household appliances. Well-coordinated public measures can also make this possible for households with lower incomes. So far, the authors say, studies on behavioral changes have unfortunately focused on behaviors with a relatively low climate protection potential. (Especially on behavioral changes that lead to an immediate or almost immediate effect, such as turning back the thermostat of the heating [2].) The existing findings on the influence of socio-economic status on possibilities for behavioral changes vary. People with higher incomes and higher education would be more likely to invest in measures to improve energy efficiency or in more efficient technologies, but they would not consume less energy. However, as I said, people with higher incomes would have better ones Scopeto reduce their emissions. Experience so far shows that CO2 taxes have hardly had any impact on the consumption of high-income households because these additional costs are negligible in their budget. On the other hand, households with low incomes are heavily burdened by such taxes [3]. Political measures that, for example, help to reduce acquisition costs would be more just economically. The location of high status residences can increase or decrease greenhouse gas emissions. Residing in the expensive, densely populated city center, where residential units are also smaller, is cheaper than living outside the city, where the residential units are larger and where most journeys are made by motor vehicle. The authors emphasize that consumer behavior is not only determined by rational decisions, but also by habits, social norms, experiences and inclinations. Prices can be a way of influencing consumer behavior, but strategies to change social norms or break routines can also be very effective.

The portfolio

 The top one percent, of course, invests the most in stocks, bonds, companies, and real estate. If these people shift their investments to low-carbon companies, they can drive structural change. Investments in fossil fuels, on the other hand, delay the reduction of emissions. The movement to withdraw funding from the fossil fuel industries has mostly come from elite universities, churches and some pension funds. People with a high socio-economic status can influence such institutions to take over or hinder these efforts, as they partly hold positions in steering bodies, but also through their informal contacts and relationships. As signs of a change in social norms, the authors see the increasing number of "green" investment funds and a new EU regulation that obliges investment managers to disclose how they take sustainability aspects into account in their advisory work for investors. Funds focused on low-emission industries also facilitate behavior change because they make it easier and therefore cheaper for investors to find out about the emission effects of various investments. The authors believe that efforts to promote climate-friendly investments should be much more focused on the highest-income classes, as they control a large part of the market and have so far been reluctant to change their behavior or, in some cases, make changes have actively stopped.

The celebrities

 So far, people with a high socio-economic status have increased greenhouse gas emissions. But they could also contribute to climate protection, as they have a great influence as role models. Social and cultural ideas of what makes a good life are based on them. As an example, the authors cite that the popularity of hybrid and later fully electric cars was driven by celebrities who purchased such vehicles. Veganism has also gained popularity thanks to celebrities. The fully vegan Golden Globe celebrations of 2020 would have contributed significantly to this. But of course people with a high status can also contribute to the consolidation of existing behaviors by displaying their excessive consumption and thus reinforcing the function of consumption as a status symbol. Through their financial and social support for political campaigns, think tanks or research institutes, people of high status can positively or negatively influence the discourse on climate change, as well as through their connections to influential institutions such as elite universities. Since there are winners and losers in climate protection measures, according to the authors, people of high status can use their power to shape such efforts to their advantage.

The CEOs

 Due to their professional position, people with a high socio-economic status have a disproportionately strong influence on the emissions of companies and organizations, on the one hand directly as owners, supervisory board members, managers or consultants, on the other hand indirectly by reducing the emissions of their suppliers, Influence customers and competitors. In recent years, many private organizations have set climate targets or made efforts to decarbonise their supply chains. In some countries, private initiatives by companies and organizations have made more progress in terms of climate protection than states. Companies also develop and advertise climate-friendly products. Elite members also act as climate philanthropists. For example, the C40 Cities climate network was funded from the personal assets of a former New York mayor [4]. The role of philanthropy for climate protection is, however, controversial. There is still too little research into the extent to which people with high socio-economic status actually use their opportunities for change, and how initiatives that target this class directly could increase their potential for change. Since most members of the elite derive their income from investments, they can also be sources of opposition to reform if they see their profits or their status at risk from such reforms.

The lobby

People influence greenhouse gas emissions at the state level through elections, lobbying and participation in social movements. The networks not of the top one percent, but the top one Tenths of a percent form the core of political and economic power, both globally and in most countries. People with a high socio-economic status have a disproportionately large influence in their role as citizens. You will have better access to decision-makers in private companies and in the public sector. Their financial resources enable them to expand their influence on these groups through donations to lobby groups, politicians and social movements and to promote or block social change. The energy policy of states is strongly influenced by lobbying. A very small number of very influential people have a major impact on decisions. The political action of the elite has so far been a powerful obstacle to action to contain climate change. In the energy sector, overwhelming political lobbying and influencing of public opinion has come from the fossil fuel sector, favoring policies that cement the production and consumption of fossil fuels. For example, two oil billionaires [5] have had a profound influence on the political discourse in the US for decades and pushed it to the right, which has favored the rise of politicians who advocate low taxes, oppose environmental protection and climate protection, and are generally suspicious of state governments Influencing are. Renewable energy companies and others that would benefit from a decarbonised future could theoretically counter these influences, but their impact has so far been minimal.

What still needs to be researched

In their conclusions, the authors name three main research gaps: First, how influenceable can the consumption behavior of the elites, especially with regard to air travel, motor vehicles and housing? The fact that the negative effects of flying have no price is a direct subsidization of the richest, as they are responsible for 50 percent of flight emissions. A linear CO2 tax would likely have little impact on the consumption behavior of the rich. A frequent flyer tax, which increases with the number of flights, could be more effective. A general progressive taxation of high incomes and large wealth could have a particularly favorable effect on the climate. This could limit the consumption of prestige. The relative status differences would be preserved: the richest would still be the richest, but they would no longer be that much richer than the poorest. This would reduce inequality in society and reduce the disproportionately high influence of the elite on politics. But these possibilities still need to be explored much better, according to the authors. A second research gap concerns the role of people with high socio-economic status in companies. How far do such people have the ability to change corporate culture and corporate decisions in the direction of lower emissions, and what are their limits? The authors identify a third research gap, to what extent the type of influence exerted by people with high socio-economic status affects politics, namely through their political capital, their influence on companies and organizations, and through financial support for lobbying and political campaigns. These elites have so far benefited most from the current political and economic structures, and there is some evidence that altruism declines with higher wealth. It's about understanding how different elite people are using their influence to promote or hinder rapid decarbonization. In conclusion, the authors emphasize that the elites with a high socio-economic status are largely responsible for climate change and the damage it causes. But the positions of power that they have would also enable them to work towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions and thus also reducing climate damage. The authors do not want to question the role of non-high status people in combating climate change, and they also emphasize the roles of indigenous peoples and local populations. But in this investigation they focus on those who caused most of the problems. No single strategy can solve the problem, and the actions of the elites can have great effects. Further research into how elite behavior can be changed is therefore of great importance.

Sources, notes

1 Nielsen, Kristian S .; Nicholas, Kimberly A .; Creutzig, Felix; Dietz, Thomas; Stern, Paul C. (2021): The role of high-socioeconomic-status people in locking in or rapidly reducing energy-driven greenhouse gas emissions. In: Nat Energy 6 (11), pp. 1011-1016. DOI: 10.1038 / s41560-021-00900-y   2 Nielsen KS, Clayton S, Stern PC, Dietz T, Capstick S, Whitmarsh L (2021): How psychology can help limit climate change. Am Psychol. 2021 Jan; 76 [1]: 130-144. doi: 10.1037 / amp0000624   3 The authors refer here to linear taxes without accompanying compensatory measures such as a climate bonus. 4 Michael Bloomberg is meant, cf. 5 Meant are the Koch brothers, cf. Skocpol, T., & Hertel-Fernandez, A. (2016). The Koch Network and Republican Party Extremism. Perspectives on Politics, 14 (3), 681-699. doi: 10.1017 / S1537592716001122

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