The more things you have and the more you travel, the more fossil fuels are burned and the more greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere.
Traveling by plane, buying luxury items, keeping mansions warm, and driving supercars all have a carbon footprint.
But some argue that the rich can do the most to solve the climate crisis. Here’s how they can make a difference.
The shopping decisions of the wealthy matter much more to the fight against climate change than the decisions of most people.
Otto noted that because the sample in the study was small, the numbers are illustrative. “Probably our estimates are even lower than the true outliers of millionaires,” she said.
“When it comes to lifestyle choices, the rich can make a big difference,” Otto said. “For example, install solar panels on the roofs of your houses. They can also afford electric cars and it’s best if they avoid flying.”
In the study, air travel accounted for more than half of the ultra-rich couple’s footprint.
Wealthy people also have more flexibility to make changes.
“High-income cities and high-income people also have the resources to test new products, services and solutions,” he explained, adding that they have the opportunity to create a market for more sustainable products.
In addition to choosing what to spend their money on, rich people can choose which industries to invest in or not to invest in.
But there is a tendency for wealthy investors to sell their stakes in climate-damaging industries, known as divestment.
“You don’t invest in coal, you don’t invest in oil, you don’t invest in gas, and you don’t invest in some car companies that make regular cars, or in aviation, so you’re channeling the money,” Otto said.
And with a sale, a little can go a long way. “We ran some simulations that show that with a divestment movement, you don’t have to get rid of everyone,” Otto said. “If a minority of investors sell shares, other investors will not invest in these fossil fuel assets because they will be afraid of losing money … even if they don’t have environmental issues.”
Wealth means power
Wealthy people not only make economic decisions, but they can also have political influence. They can fund political parties and campaigns and have access to legislators.
Otto argued that rich people can use their political power to instigate positive changes in climate policy.
“People with the highest emissions have the most opportunity to make a difference,” Otto said. “There is so much research on the poor, the impact of climate change on the poor… sustainable development goals and so on. But when it comes to action, resilience and transformation, there is nothing the poor can do because they are busy surviving.
“But the educated, the rich and the super-rich are a different story. They have money and resources to act, and they also have social networks,” she explained.
Fund climate research
The rich can also support climate research. In 2015, Microsoft founder Bill Gates set aside $2 billion of his fortune to fund clean energy research and development.
“We ask you to urgently consider making significant investments to prevent further environmental catastrophe – whether it be your personal investment or your charity,” the letter says.
The rich have plenty of incentives to demand action on climate change: a recent UN report warned that postponing climate policy would cost the world’s leading companies $1.2 trillion over the next 15 years.
The super-rich can also influence other people’s carbon emissions.
“High status in our society is still associated with high material wealth,” Otto said. “It’s a desire to become very rich, and you emulate the lifestyle of the people you want to be like.”
For example, air travel is no longer reserved for the super-rich. This year, low-cost airline Ryanair became the only non-coal plant among the top 10 issuers in Europe.
“We need to redefine wealth in our society so that the ‘good life’ is possible without high greenhouse gas emissions,” she said.