Two new scientific papers break down how the rich are destroying Earth

Affluent thirst for resources is accelerating the climate crisis, researchers say

By Troy Farah

Science & Health Editor

Published April 19, 2023 5:30AM (EDT)

A protester holds a placard against the people with money during the climate change demonstration march.  (Ana Fernandez/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A protester holds a placard against the people with money during the climate change demonstration march. (Ana Fernandez/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

As the climate crisis becomes more acute — exemplified in interminable wildfire "seasons", intense drought and extreme weather — it's becoming clear that saving the planet will involve more than politely asking consumers to recycle their yogurt cups. Indeed, many of climate change's effects are largely spurred by resource hoarding and inequality via the super-rich. This is not the perspective of a progressive op-ed writer, but rather the conclusion scientific research that sought to quantify the relationship between resource consumption and wealth.

Intriguingly, it is not merely that the wealthiest are causing global warming — they are also engaged in behaviors that are hurting the world's poor more than climate change is. Particularly regarding access to safe drinking water, overly extractive and selfish behaviors often outpace the damage global heating is inflicting on the world's poorest.

 "Urban water crises can be triggered by the unsustainable consumption patterns of privileged social groups."

A pair of studies demonstrates just how stark the inequality is. The first, recently published in the journal Nature Sustainability, details how "urban elites are able to overconsume water while excluding less-privileged populations from basic access." The second, published in the journal Cleaner Production Letters, explains how the lavish lifestyles of rich people are disproportionately choking the planet, making it unlikely for us to achieve targets for keeping global temperatures from rising.

Let's start with water, that precious liquid that makes life on Earth possible. Sprawling mansions attached to evergreen golf courses, idyllic lawns and massive swimming pools all suck up a disproportionate amount of H2O. In contrast, access to clean drinking water, which is internationally recognized as a human right, yet 1 in 4 people globally don't have such access, a disparity responsible for approximately 1.2 million deaths per year. Even in California, which may soon become the planet's fourth largest economy, persistent drought has driven up the cost of water so much that millions of residents struggle to pay their water bill. Meanwhile, places like Jackson, Mississippi face water treatment plant failures.

"More than 80 big cities worldwide have suffered from water shortages due to droughts and unsustainable water use over the past 20 years, but our projections show this crisis could get worse still as the gap between the rich and the poor widens in many parts of the world," Professor Hannah Cloke, a hydrologist at the University of Reading who co-authored the Nature Sustainability study, said in a statement. "This shows the close links between social, economic and environmental inequality. Ultimately, everyone will suffer the consequences unless we develop fairer ways to share water in cities."

To demonstrate this, Cloke and her colleagues looked at Cape Town, South Africa, a city of 4.7 million that experienced "one of the most extreme urban water crises ever recorded" in mid-2017 to mid-2018. Thanks to severe drought and increased demand, water levels dropped to historic lows — notably, in the Theewaterskloof Dam, which sank to less than 13 percent capacity at one point. The situation became so dire that the government warned of a "Day Zero," in which taps would run completely dry.

"Despite representing only 1.4% and 12.3% of the total population, respectively, elite and upper-middle-income groups together use more than half (51%) of the water consumed by the entire city."

Thanks to a concentrated conservation campaign, Day Zero never came, though Cape Town's water troubles haven't fully evaporated. But similar scenarios are threatening to play out in other cities from São Paulo to Miami to Bangalore to London, as water becomes more of a precious resource. The issue is typically framed in terms of unchecked urban expansion or overuse in agriculture. The problem, as Cloke and her coauthors argue, is framed in terms of overall consumption — decoupled from the political realities that underlie the crisis and promote technological strategies that "perpetuate the same logic and, in turn, reproduce the uneven and unsustainable water patterns that have contributed to the water crisis in the first place." But when you look closer, it's clear that a small sector of affluent individuals and their families use far more than others.

In Cape Town, the researchers used a system-dynamic model to capture the complex interplay of water systems. They broke down the city into five social groups: the elite, upper-middle income, lower-middle income, lower income and informal settlements scattered at the edges of the city.

"Despite representing only 1.4% and 12.3% of the total population, respectively, elite and upper-middle-income groups together use more than half (51%) of the water consumed by the entire city," the authors reported. "These groups usually live in spacious houses with gardens and swimming pools and consume unsustainable levels of water, while informal dwellers do not have taps or toilets inside their premises."

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The authors do not mince words about this stark contrast, emphasizing that "urban water crises can be triggered by the unsustainable consumption patterns of privileged social groups. Critical social sciences explain that these patterns are generated by distinctive political–economic systems that seek capital accumulation and perpetual growth to the exclusive benefit of a privileged minority. In other words, there is nothing natural about urban elites overconsuming and overexploiting water resources and the water marginalization of other social groups. Instead, water inequalities and their unsustainable consequences are products of history, politics and power."

They conclude that the only way to counteract these trends is through political change; specifically, by "reimagining a society in which elitist overconsumption at the expense of other citizens or the environment is not tolerated." They argue we must refuse to allow such privileged lifestyles to dominate water use — which is a pretty sharp political argument, but the authors deem it appropriate given that water use is inherently political, whether we like it or not.

The Cleaner Production Letters paper takes a broader view, not just focusing on water usage but overall consumption by they wealthiest individuals. They start by examining carbon budgets and how that fits into international goals to limit rising temperatures to 1.5º Celsius. They identify that wealthy people disproportionately spew more greenhouse gases than poor individuals, especially via private aircraft and yachts, and hoarding real estate across continents. And the situation just keeps getting worse, as more people become millionaires, increasing their lavish carbon budgets.

The study, led by Stefan Gössling, a tourism research professor at Lund University in Sweden, predicts that at the current rate, the number of millionaires in the world will more than triple from 0.7 percent of the global population in 2020 to 3.3. percent by 2050. Yet, at current levels, they will still use up about 72 percent of the annual carbon budget. A carbon budget is a benchmark for the maximum amount of carbon dioxide emissions that can be released into the atmosphere while still having a reasonable chance of limiting global temperature increase to a specific target, usually 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

"Our findings raise the issue of global policy choices, with this research confirming that targeting the high emitters will be key," write Gössling and his coauthor professor Andreas Humpe, a professor at Munich University of Applied Sciences. "Staying within temperature limits of 1.5º C or 2.0º C is difficult without addressing the consequences of wealth growth. While a dollar spent by low-income takers is associated with greater emissions than one spent by the wealthy, the concentration of wealth at the top means that a significant share of the remaining carbon budget to 1.5° C is depleted by a very small share of humanity."

It's unclear if we can get off this railway to complete climate collapse. A lot could change in the next three decades. But as Gössling and Humpe note, "without policies that mandate change, including a reduction in energy use as well as a transition to the use of renewable energies by the wealthy, it is difficult to see how global warming can remain within critical thresholds."

Some political leaders, including President Joe Biden, have proposed higher taxes on the ultra-rich, such as a 25 percent tax on all wealth over $100 million — which is estimated to affect just 0.01 percent of Americans. But this proposal is put forward as a way to reduce the federal deficit, not fight climate change. Given the urgency of the current situation, which is only spiraling more out of control the longer we wait, it's critical that folks understand the political and economic realities that underpin our unraveling climate.

By Troy Farah

Troy Farah is a science and public health journalist whose reporting has appeared in Scientific American, STAT News, Undark, VICE, and others. He co-hosts the drug policy and science podcast Narcotica. His website is and can be found on Twitter at @filth_filler

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Cape Town Climate Change Rich People Ruining The Planet Science Water Wealthy