When you talk about the climate crisis, sooner or later someone is going to say that population is the issue and fret about the sheer number of humans now living on Earth. But population per se is not the problem, because the farmer in Bangladesh or the street vendor in Brazil doesn’t have nearly the impact of the venture capitalist in California or the petroleum oligarchs of Russia and the Middle East. The richest 1% of humanity is responsible for more carbon emissions than the poorest 66%. The rich are bad for the Earth, and the richer they are the bigger their adverse impact (including the impact of money invested in banks, and stocks financing fossil fuels and other forms of climate destruction).
In other words, we are not all the same size. Billionaires loom large over our politics and environment in ways that are hard to understand without taking on the shocking scale of their wealth. That impact, both through their climate emissions and their manipulations of politics and public life means they are not at all like the rest of humanity. They are behemoths, and they mostly use their outsize power in ugly ways – both in how much they consume and how much they influence the world’s climate response.
Let me put it this way: if you made $10,000 a week – a princely sum by the standards of most people – you would have to work every week from the year of Jesus’s birth until this week to earn over a billion dollars. To earn as much as Elon Musk’s net worth at that rate – currently $180bn, according to Forbes – you’d have to work every week for more than a third of a million years – that is, since before Homo sapiens first emerged in Africa.
Another way to put it is: one day last year, walking on San Francisco’s western edge, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, I saw whales spouting, and then I came home and rescued a bee buzzing at my window. The extremely disparate scale of these two wild creatures impressed me, and so I did the sums: a honeybee weighs about 0.11 grams and 4,000 bees weigh a pound; a grey whale weighs between 60,000 and 90,000 pounds, meaning that, even at the lower weight, it weighs about as much as a quarter of a billion bees. According to Oxfam, 81 billionaires hold more wealth than the poorest half of all humanity, meaning that in monetary terms 81 people are bigger than 4 billion people. So when it comes to wealth and impact, billionaires are whales and poor people are bees. Except that whales aren’t a menace to bees.
But billionaires are a menace to the rest of us: their sheer political size warps our public life. Disproportionately older, white and male, they function as unelected powers, a sort of freelance global aristocracy who are too often trying to reign over the rest of us. Some critics think that the supergiant tech corporations that have spawned so many modern billionaires operate in ways that resemble feudalism more than capitalism, and, certainly, plenty of billionaires operate like the lords of the Earth while campaigning to protect the economic inequality that made them so rich and makes so many others so poor. They use their power in arbitrary, reckless and often environmentally destructive ways.
Look at how Musk bought Twitter – a crucial news source for millions of people in disasters and journalists and scientists everywhere – and turned it into X, a haven for antisemitism and unfiltered lies, including climate denial and disinformation, or how he wields huge political power with his satellite network and other assets. As the New Yorker put it: “There is little precedent for a civilian’s becoming the arbiter of a war between nations in such a granular way, or for the degree of dependency that the US now has on Musk in a variety of fields, from the future of energy and transportation to the exploration of space.”
Look at how Bill Gates (the sixth richest person on Earth, at $104bn) has decided to influence climate policy. I remember first thinking about Gates’s size when he built his house on the shore of Lake Washington decades ago: how much could one man eat and excrete to occupy a home with six kitchens and 24 bathrooms? In a literal sense, he eats and emits a great deal; he’s fond of private jets, and the Pacific-facing beach in front of that mansion is supplied with sand hauled in by barge from the Caribbean, according to an unctuous article in Business Insider. (Other sources say it’s hauled in from Hawaii.)
He runs the world’s largest private foundation, and the influence it has exerted on health and life, particularly in Africa, has been criticised. Now he’s trying to exert an outsize influence on climate policy. A hallmark of tech billionaires is their boundless confidence in their own competence in whatever field they’d like to influence. Money talks – or, rather, shouts.
Gates has insisted we need “energy miracles” and a “clean energy breakthrough”, and in 2016 declared: “If the world can find a source of cheap, clean energy, it will do more than halt climate change,” while ignoring the existing increasingly cheap solar and wind energy we have and the roadmaps that far more qualified experts have laid out for a clean energy transition. The site Live Science commented on his declaration, “Bill Gates ‘Discovers’ 14-Year-Old Formula on Climate Change.”
The climate scientist Michael Mann writes that Gates’s terrible ideas include “a relatively inert but prohibitively expensive proposition known as ‘direct air capture’ (sucking carbon pollution back out of the atmosphere), and considerably more perilous in my view ‘solar radiation management’ – a euphemism for schemes that typically involve injecting huge amounts of sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere to form a reflective blanket that might help cool Earth back down.” That Gates might be wrong about the climate wouldn’t matter if he were someone with the same kind of impact as an ordinary citizen; the problem is his excessive power.
The US has a quarter of the world’s 2,700 or so dollar billionaires, and two of them – Tom Steyer, who has donated lavishly to various climate groups and has his own political action committee, and Michael Bloomberg, who has contributed substantially to the Beyond Coal campaign – have actually had a positive impact. But extreme wealth is itself bad for democracy – a one-person one-vote system is compromised when some people have so much influence over who and what gets on the ballot and how it gets talked about (and a lot of American billionaires have backed the candidates, party and campaigns that have undermined voting rights as well as climate action in many parts of the US).
Being a billionaire tends to isolate you from the rest of humanity, and too often places you in an echo chamber of your own making; it’s arguably a disqualification for participating in the affairs of ordinary people. Most billionaires are self-interested, protecting the very inequality and exploitation that made them so much richer than the rest of us. Polls in many countries show that most of the public want to see climate action and the funding for it; the obstacles are not public opinion but the fossil fuel companies and vested interests controlled by elites. This is why many US climate and environmental organisations have made democracy and voting rights part of their work.
A few good billionaires among the saboteurs don’t justify the existence of the species. That’s why in Kim Stanley Robinson’s climate-fiction novel The Ministry for the Future, billionaires are eliminated as a climate hazard, their fortunes whittled down to $50m if they comply. Robinson writes: “There was scientifically supported evidence to show that if the Earth’s available resources were divided up equally among all 8 billion humans, everyone would be fine. They would all be at adequacy, and the scientific evidence very robustly supported that people living at adequacy, and confident they would stay there (a crucial point), were healthier and happier than rich people.” On a thriving planet, human beings should be human scale, but the super-rich are on another scale altogether, giants trampling underfoot both nature and our efforts to protect it.