What do the wealthy think and do about climate change?

There is a tide turning in one important area—the recognition of climate change. I can feel it among people and see it in the mainstream media. The fires in California have become a tipping point in public opinion on climate change.

There is a sense—finally!!!—that climate change has become a top progressive priority in the United States, up there with institutional racism and health care. There is even a sense that the large majority of people-beyond progressives-now accept the facts. People have seen that science means something in the real world.


That is good, but…

Progressives turning is not enough. The majority of the public in wealthy countries turning is not enough. Even the mainstream media turning is not enough. Only 25 percent of climate-damaging emissions can be impacted by responsible personal choices in diet, energy use, transportation and so forth.

The vast majority of climate-changing emissions come not from personal choices but from the wealthy, the infrastructure politically controlled by the wealthy and the big industry owned by the wealthy. The demographic that matters most is the top five percent or so of the income scale. those with decision-making power over large industries and public institutions as well as over their own fortunes.

And the picture is still bleak there. Kanye West showed what the attitude of many of the wealthy is when he hired private firefighters to keep his home safe while much of California burned.

I recently conducted a small survey of wealthy people to determine their attitudes and actions regarding climate change. Last summer I surveyed an online social network frequented by many wealthy individuals or at least those who self-identify as exceptionally wealthy. This social network is broad enough to encompass every political leaning but those who answered my survey were self selected.

The survey is not large enough to be a good statistical sample. Still their responses are revealing. Individuals in the network reported on their own beliefs as well as those they observe in their social circle of wealthy friends and acquaintances.

My survey question was, “Do wealthy, educated people A. put a large percent of their resources into fighting human-induced climate change, B. not care or not believe the consequences will affect them, C. feel too despairing or apathetic to do anything about it or D. deny the consensus of the vast majority of scientists on climate change?

Of those who reported on their own beliefs, only one in ten said they would do or previously had done anything to mitigate climate change. One out of ten reported the apathy and despair of option C. The rest were split between B (40 percent) and D (40 percent).

The format encouraged explanation of their views and many of the responses were angry and vehement. Typical explanations include the following excerpts:

“It is not the job of the wealthy to take care of everything. It is the responsibility of people as a whole to take care of the environment.”

”If you are so convinced that major climate change is coming then you better do something about it. I think about it about as much as myths like Bigfoot,”

“Fact is many climate predictions have fallen flat, so you could reasonably conclude the latest climate predictions are probably fiction.”

“The climate change prompters (sic) are very loud, and have tried to shut up their opposition. And there are a significant number of people (sic) think the crisis is much smaller than reported. There are also many people who want to use “climate change” to push their political or cultural agenda, such as urbanization, mass transit, solar power, and even vegetarianism.”

It is particularly troubling that people who identify as wealthy and educated so commonly either deny climate change outright or deny the seriousness of the impacts. The reasons thought up about why scientists might fabricate evidence, including the concept that some people want things like public transit and solar power either as money-making schemes or because of personal enjoyment of them, are depressingly under-thought.

Three out of ten respondents also commented on their beliefs about what other wealthy people do or think about climate change. These responses were split evenly between B, C and D. The despair of option C climbed when the answer described the opinions of others. Somehow few respondents wanted to self-identify as despairing or apathetic, which is one big difference between the responses of the wealthy and those of the general population, in which despair and apathy is commonly self-reported.

Another difference between the response of the wealthy to climate change versus that of the general population was pointed out by a respondent, who wrote; “For wealthy people, climate change isn’t so bad. If there is a food crisis, it means other people will starve, so they feel a tinge of remorse, but it won’t impact them directly. If one of their houses gets flooded, they can just move. They have options… So they all feel like someone should be doing something, but not them, someone else. Because for them, doing something would mean losing the benefit of being wealthy.”

If this respondent is correct, it is possible that some of the wealthy who either claim to deny climate change or simply ignore such a survey, actually are banking on the assumption that climate change will primarily affect the poor and middle classes.

What does this mean for people who are highly concerned about climate change and willing to act on this concern?

Again, my survey isn’t a scientific study but it gives some indication of common reactions to climate change in the top wealth bracket. Those who ignored the survey are likely to be more apathetic, but if there had been individuals in the wealthy social network who were acutely concerned about climate change, some of them would have answered over the course of several months when the survey was displayed. It may be that apathetic respondents did not respond because they were apathetic not just about the issue of climate change but even about discussing it in a survey, but the lack of positive responses clearly indicates a real lack of positive thinking on the issue in this economic class.

Given the disproportionate impact of the wealthy on climate policy and industrial causes, it is clear that this demographic is one that should be addressed by serious climate action. The wealthy may suffer less from climate change than others but they will be impacted negatively. They may need more factual education.

On the other hand, many wealthy people today may know the facts well enough but choose to deny climate change publicly for profit or to avoid the shame of being unresponsive on an issue that will cause massive death and harm to many others. The wealthy are not immune to public pressure and the great impact that even a few wealthy individuals becoming active in combating climate change is worth a significant amount of effort to achieve.

It may be helpful to focus campaigns more on the impact of wealthy lifestyles, industry and policy influence, revealing to the public at large the crucial role of the wealthy in driving climate change. In any event, climate campaigns focused on those with wealth and political power will be more likely to get results in the time available.