Climate Change: The Ultimate Class Conflict

Climate Change: The Ultimate Class Conflict

Emmet Fox

An evocation of a class perspective remains absent from climate advocacy and debate. Emission disparities are routinely hidden by headline statistics referring to national emissions. Per capita and historical emissions, often used to reallocate blame to developed countries, still fit a narrative that individualises climate change responsibility.

These classless statistics conceal how each citizen is not equally responsible for their country’s emissions. In contrast evidence gathered by Chancel and Piketty suggests the top global 1% – with a mean income of €171000 for its EU members – emit as much as the bottom 50%. Neglecting colossal class disparities such as this mystifies our understanding of society’s relationship to climate change and undermines the effectiveness of advocacy, mitigation and adaptation.

Of course, the lower classes in advanced economies typically emit much more than those in emerging ones – especially when you consider that 1.3 billion people in India lack electricity. However, just under a third of the global top 10%, responsible for 45% of global CO2e emissions hail from emerging economies. The rise in household emissions as income increases is largely universal across affluent and developing countries.

The role of consumption of food, goods and services in household emissions for 2005 to 2006 made up four fifths of British household emissions on top of direct emissions such as from heating fuel or driving a car. Again, however, indirect emissions from consumption are normally excluded from individualizing per capita figures. Consequently, the consumption of wealthier classes contributes to a sleight-of-hand in global emissions. While UK production emissions fell, emissions embodied in consumption rose but those emissions have been offshored to newly industrialised countries along with production and low-level labour.

Certain forms of consumption aimed at the wealthy are particularly carbon-heavy. VIP exclusivity has a multiplier effect on consumption emissions. Business and first class or the VIP sections on cruise-liners greatly expand the emissions of what are already high-emitting forms of travel.

More research is needed on the effects to the political economy of climate change by upper-class über-emitters adding an extra tier to a post-Fordist luxury-goods and services economy. In this tier millionaires and billionaires are producing and selling high-emitting elite luxury products solely to millionaires and billionaires – recently demonstrated by the 1,500 or so private jets that flew into Davos for an extravagant display of hypocrisy. The superyachts of the upper-classes can consume an extraordinary 750, 850 or even as much as 3400 litres of fuel per hour.

The classed nature of climate change extends beyond consumption to political struggle and reproduction of class position. Evidence suggests the billionaire class overwhelmingly try to impose plutocratic objectives on the democratic system in favour of business-as-usual. This is perhaps not surprising when you consider that a fraction of the upper class – namely, leading shareholders, senior and middle managers – have thrown their lot in with the 100 fossil fuel corporations directly linked to more than 70% of global greenhouse-gas production.

Down near the other end, while data remains limited, preliminary indications are that headline-grabbing Gilet Jaunes consist of mainly lower middle classes. Their dependence on commuting by car have left them particularly sensitive to feeling aggrieved by changes to speed limits, diesel’s devalued green status, rising fuel costs. Admittedly, there is a complex crossover with libertarian ideals centred around the car and its perceived independence, as the car-centric nature of the protests suggest. But Macron’s government’s attempt to increase the country’s climate tax on fuel while at the same time abolishing a tax on inherited wealth has been especially vexatious. The explosive results have stalled carbon tax increases.

As this illustrates consumer and market-based approaches to lowering energy use are fraught with class-related complexities. Low-carbon living or green consumerism options, despite being in keeping with individualizing responsibility for climate change, are not equally accessible to all. The phenomenon of precarity through temporary and zero-hour contracts, unpaid labour, and rising rent and housing costs, have penetrated the work-lives of many in working and middle classes. Being forced by such circumstances onto longer daily commutes as rising housing costs spread-out from metropolitan labour centres, means that some cannot simply switch from the long car drive, particularly if quality public transport access is limited.

For many, investment in solar panels, electric cars, passive house technologies are unreachable. Although, grants are offered in some countries that can help to access low-carbon technology, these are often complicated by upfront costs or deposits, or requiring repayment such as was the case with the UK’s Green Deal scheme. Some of these schemes also cover tenancy arrangements but lower classes, dependent on landlords, would need to have a particular landlord relationship that is open to implementing changes.

In addition to such economic disparities, deeper class analysis emphasises other stratifying forms of capital. Cultural capital includes composure, expert discourses, education; social capital encompasses the ‘right connections’ and being associated with or able to avail of the capital of particular groups; and symbolic capital involves status, and prestige and emerges from having the value of other forms of accumulated capital recognized.

These class concepts help understand the subtlety of power relations that have become embedded in the whole debate around climate change. In my own research I found stark differences across social groups in composure with, and ability to speak about, climate change, with a deep hesitancy in low cultural capital groups to discuss or become informed about the more technical political, economic, and scientific aspects of it. Some also avoided serious and direct discussion through ridiculing or making light of the issue. Climate change is heavily associated with high-powered expertise and a resistant or ‘not-for-the-likes-of-us’ reaction to certain types of elite knowledge by members of lower classes has long been identified in other studies.

Quite possibly, the reaction of the Yellow Vests in France was part of a similarly aggrieved lack of symbolic capital or perceived devalued status of their rights as car-owning commuters in contrast to exalted higher classes freed of wealth taxation. The potential for this kind of disaffection to derail climate policy should not be underestimated.

Symbolic capital or the lack of it might also be present in resistance to Paris’ lower-carbon transition to a cycling city. Last year pulled their dockless bicycle company out of France after a string of thefts and vandalism. For sociologist Bruno Marzloff the continuous mass vandalism of the Vélib’ bike-sharing system was carried out by resentful, poor and marginalized immigrant youth who feel excluded from the glamourous side of Paris. The bikes are associated with the trendy urban middle class and used overwhelmingly, it seems, by professional males under the age of 35 who can afford to live in the city centre.

The latter is also an example of Crenshaw’s ‘intersectionality’, which highlights how class is shot through with other intersecting disparities often relating to age, gender and race. Hurricanes, reveal how weather disasters (which climate change is predicted to make more extreme) can be disproportionately distributed across race and class. The marginalised black working classes compelled by historically racist lending practices to live in the low-lying areas bore the brunt of Katrina’s destruction. The aftermath has seen uneven development tendencies exploit pre-crisis inequalities. Profitable re-development has cleared wetlands for wealthy residential, commercial and industrial use, with rebuilding having occurred for predominantly wealthier white communities, while largely ignoring the needs of the most vulnerable.

In many ways Bourdieu’s conceptualizations of capital complement the intersectionality of class and race as evident in forced migration, which gathers momentum under climate change. Money is often essential to being able to move – e.g. to pay for transport, smugglers – while the poorest of the poor remain trapped. Cultural and social capital play their part in negotiating with migrancy bureaucracies, speaking host languages, favourable self-presentation, and relying on international ties. Symbolic capital helps in meeting selective entry requirements, which bypass humanitarian commitments, such as being of the ‘right’ combination of skills, class, religion, race, age and gender. Of course, there are the members of the higher echelons – surgeons, corporate executives – who can leapfrog over these obstacles through acquiring work visas and even citizenship – and the middle class, who fill particular labour deficits, such as nurses.

More localised forms of migration now include the growing phenomenon of climate gentrification. People from Phoenix in Arizona – the USA’s fastest warming large city – are relocating or buying up 2nd homes in the cooler climes of the city of Flagstaff. This is only something wealthier classes can afford to do with the added effects of soaring rent and property values that price out lower income groups while those who can’t afford to move are left to endure prolonged and searing temperatures. Meanwhile on the Eastern coast, rising sea-levels and more powerful hurricanes, are encouraging the rising value of higher-elevated areas. Racial lines are being redrawn as the typically lower income and minority areas on higher ground have climbed in value while properties close to sea-level have declined. The process is clearly underway in the greater Miami area, and accelerated by real estate developers bent on commodifying a classed climate change.

Climate gentrification is just one of a discriminating multitude of class forces heavily implicated in the brutal onset of anthropogenic climate change. While some justice campaigners and concerned policy-makers might favour the less confrontational language of ‘equality’ and ‘poverty’, the lens of class opens the climate change debate to the war of differences. Class and its intersections, therefore, must not be side-lined in understanding and responding to it.

A class-sensitive approach might also add empirical and intellectual weight to personal carbon budgets, targeted-tax approaches, and systemic interventions aimed at reigning in the high-emitting profligacy of those most responsible. Attempts aimed towards instigating the low-carbon society must recognise the sensitivities and potential consequences of class-based exclusion. The multifaceted nature of class ensures a myriad of ways in which it is integral to understanding society’s unfolding relationship to climate change.


Emmet Fox has worked with the DEMAND Energy Centre on UK senior leisure travel demand and with the Global Sustainability Institute on the Horizon 2020 SHAPE-ENERGY project. His research interests are in practice theory and sustainability and he has published articles on climate change and society and on the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. @EmGeFox & @SociologyofCC


IMAGE CREDIT: Photo by Norbu Gyachung on Unsplash

1 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    March 06, 2019

    Great piece. So pleased that Bourdieu’s forms of capital analysis is shown to apply to modern conumdrums. Might the author go on to apply the analysis to the consumerist warping of taste in relation to the Anthropocene more generally (with compent threats from antibiotics, plastics and other novel organisms), showing too how this occurrence is also indelibly marked by its class and economic character? Of course the problem is not just linked with carbon and emissions more generally but the vast tide of ‘stuff’ and processes which are overwhelming planetary resilience.

    And after the analysis, what to do then?