It’s been said that the richest among us benefit from the use of fossil fuels while the poorest deal with the downstream effects of those emissions. And now a new study is showing just how big that divide is in the United States.
The wealthiest 10 percent of American households create 40 percent of the country’s greenhouse-gas emissions, The Washington Post reported on Thursday. That’s according to a study in the journal PLOS Climate that examined how a household’s income led to emissions, including how and where people made money and where they invested that money.
“As you move up the income ladder, an increasing share of emissions is associated with investments,” Jared Starr, the lead author of the study, told the Post. “It just seems morally and politically problematic to have one group of people reaping so much benefit from emissions while the poorer groups in society are asked to disproportionately deal with the harms of those emissions.”
To arrive at these numbers, Starr and his team looked at income data from 1999 to 2019, linking it to emissions created directly and indirectly from that money. That income could have come from businesses like coal-fired power plants or from investments that supported fossil-fuel-burning industries.
At the very top of the income spectrum—the richest 1 percent of Americans—investments composed 38 to 42 percent of their emissions. And those emissions were 15 to 17 percent of the country’s total greenhouse-gas emissions. Within that subset, there were also a group of so-called super-emitters, which aligned with the top 0.1 percent of households. For these people, about 15 days of emissions were equivalent to a lifetime of emissions from someone in the poorest 10 percent of the United States, the Post noted.
“All Americans contribute to climate change, but clearly not in the same way,” the French economist Lucas Chancel (who was not involved with the study) told the newspaper. “Without policies such as regulations or taxes on very polluting investments, it’s unlikely that wealthy individuals making a lot of money from fossil fuel investments will stop investing in them.”
Starr noted, however, that those very same people are often the ones making policy decisions in the United States. He hopes, though, that his new study will perhaps convince some of them that such changes to investing are necessary.