Who is responsible for climate change?

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Big Oil and other wealthy polluters are responsible for climate change. Image by Devon Chandler from Pixabay

Why wealthy polluters own the climate crisis—and what they owe the world.

The effects of climate change are all too visible in daily life. From heat waves in California to floods in Pakistan, extreme weather and rising temperatures are forcing people from their homes and worsening world hunger and famine.

But the climate crisis neither affects everyone equally—nor is everyone equally responsible. New Oxfam research finds that the richest among us were responsible for more carbon emissions than 5 billion people—the equivalent of 66 percent of humanity—in 2019.

“People who have contributed least to the climate crisis are right now suffering its worst impacts,” said Elizabeth Wathuti, a Kenyan climate activist.

At Oxfam, we’ve been holding wealthy polluters accountable for years. So we’re going to explain who is responsible for climate change—Big Oil, rich industrialized countries, and carbon billionaires—and what they owe the people and frontline communities that are paying the heaviest price for their actions.

Big Oil knowingly made climate change worse

Wealthy corporations are responsible for recklessly extracting fossil fuels for energy production after centuries of dirty industrialization in Europe and North America—significantly contributing to global climate change.

  • According to a three-part PBS FRONTLINE series, Big Oil giant ExxonMobil sat on research by its own scientists conducted in the 1980s showing the connection between fossil fuel activities and global temperature rise.

  • With government support, Big Oil doubled down on its polluting exploits, enabling the release of large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane into the earth’s atmosphere.

  • Approximately 71 percent of carbon emissions can be traced to just 100 fossil fuel producers since 1988.

By the mid ‘90s, a global scientific consensus emerged that humans were contributing to global temperature rise. But Big Oil—led by its lobbyists at groups like the American Petroleum Institute—did everything it could to seed doubt and delay meaningful climate action in the US and globally.

Rich industrialized countries have contributed the most historical emissions to climate change

Before the early 1800s, individuals worldwide had more similar living standards. The Industrial Revolution in the Global North changed everything, and global economic inequality grew substantially among people around the world through the middle of the 20th century.

So what was the climate impact of that transformation?

  • A New York Times analysis found that 23 rich industrialized countries are responsible for 50 percent of all historical emissions and more than 150 countries are responsible for the rest.

  • According to former NASA scientist James Hansen, industrialization in Europe, North America, Australia, and Japan was responsible for 77 percent of global emissions between 1751-2006.

Though China is responsible for the largest percentage of current emissions, rich industrialized countries are still responsible for more than one third. By comparison, Africa’s current emissions are less than 4 percent of the global total.

“Wealthy countries are disproportionately responsible for the climate crisis, and they have the double responsibility to both cut emissions at home and to support developing countries with the costs of replanting crops and rebuilding homes after storms, and moving from dirty energy forms to cleaner, lower-carbon ones,” said Oxfam’s Climate Policy Lead Nafkote Dabi.

Carbon billionaires are propping up fossil fuels with their investments

The super-rich—the top 1 percent of global population by income—bear their own responsibility for climate change. Beyond the carbon footprint of their rich and famous lifestyles, so called “carbon billionaires” are making significant financial investments into wealthy corporate polluters, according to Oxfam research.

  • These 125 billionaires are responsible for emitting an average of 3 million carbon tons each year.

  • From 1990-2015, the carbon emissions of the super-rich globally were more than double the emissions of the poorest half of humanity. Over that same time, the poorest 50 percent—around 3.1 billion people—were responsible for just 7 percent of emissions.

  • Emissions of the super-rich will cause 1.3 million heat-related deaths between 2020 and 2030—roughly the equivalent of the entire population of Dallas.

“The major and growing responsibility of wealthy people for overall emissions is rarely discussed or considered in climate policy making,” Dabi said. “This has to change. These billionaire investors at the top of the corporate pyramid have huge responsibility for driving climate breakdown. They have escaped accountability for too long.”

Conclusion

These wealthy polluters are responsible for climate change—and it’s time to hold them accountable on the world stage.

Big Oil must stop exploiting communities that possess natural resources in the Global South as the transition to clean energy continues, rich industrialized countries must pay for the loss and damage already being experienced by communities on the frontlines of the crisis, and carbon billionaires must shift their investments to funds with stronger environmental and social standards.

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