We’ve all heard the term ‘American Exceptionalism’, one which causes me to shake my head and roll my eyes. It ties in with the ultra-discriminatory ‘America First’ ideology and other supremacy notions and has no place in this world. But, it turns out there is one area in which we are ‘exceptional’ … we, particularly the wealthy in this nation, contribute more per capita to the destruction of the environment than any other nation. Not something to take pride in, is it?
Somini Sengupta is the international climate reporter for the New York Times, and what follows is her column/newsletter from February 28th.
The American Exception
When it comes to climate footprints, rich people in the United States are in a class of their own.
28 February 2023
Climate change may be a global problem. But we are not all the same. Far from it.
The wealthier we are, the more climate pollution we produce, because of how much electricity we consume, what we eat, and how much we drive. But it’s not just wealth. It matters a lot in which country we are wealthy.
Take a look below at this chart that my colleague Mira Rojanasakul prepared based on an International Energy Agency analysis of per capita carbon dioxide emissions by income.
You will see the wealthiest people in the United States have an astonishingly large climate footprint, far larger than rich people in wealthy, industrialized Europe and in fast-rising China.
Not only that: Nearly everyone in the United States, even those in the lowest income brackets, produces a lot of climate pollution relative to everyone else in the world. It’s the way our economy is built. We take for granted long commutes and frequent flights. Our electricity comes from sources that are relatively carbon-intensive. The rest of the world is different.
Americans are exceptional.
I know this intuitively. I’ve reported from more than 50 countries. But seeing the spread of per capita emissions from the world’s four largest economies — the United States, the European Union, China and India — still surprised me.
The richest 10 percent of Americans, or those who make an average of $233,600 a year, produces 56.5 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per person, per year on average, according to the I.E.A. analysis. That’s more than double the emissions of the richest 10 percent in Europe. It’s nearly double that of the richest 10 percent of Chinese.
Everyone else in the United States has a big footprint, too, relative to their counterparts in Europe, China and India. For instance, the poorest 10 percent of Americans, those making $2,500 a year on average, have a carbon footprint that’s almost as big as everyone in India, except India’s richest 10 percent.
Likewise, the poorest 10 percent of Americans have a climate footprint larger than the poorest 30 percent of Chinese.
This is about emissions per capita. Not about total emissions.
India and China are obviously much more populous than the United States and Europe. So their small footprints add up. I get that. I wrote about the population question not long ago. But for those at the bottom, and even middle, of their class ladders, they do not produce a lot of emissions.
Inequality within countries really matters.
In China, for instance, the richest 10 percent have a footprint 33 times the size of the poorest 10 percent.
In the United States, the richest 10 percent pollute 16 times as much as the poorest 10 percent. See where you fall on this graph:
In India, the climate pollution produced by the poorest 10 percent of the population is negligible. Many of them still cook with charcoal or cow dung. They may not have access to electricity around the clock. They most certainly don’t own a car. At best, a bicycle.
This could make climate action simpler (in theory).
A small number of relatively wealthy people can make a very big difference. Most of all, in the United States. “The richest individuals have many ways to reduce their emissions,” the International Energy Agency analysis pointed out. They include individual changes and policy changes.
(Note: replacing a massive petroleum-burning car for a giant electric truck isn’t quite a silver bullet.)
And bear in mind that the so-called yacht class, the richest 0.1 percent of the population, are super polluters of another order. Their emissions are 10 times as much as the whole world’s richest 10 percent combined.
I have learned something else from going over these numbers.
I have frequently used the term “we” in writing about climate change. Are we doomed? Can we limit temperature rise to relatively safe planetary boundaries? How quickly can we wean ourselves from fossil fuels to slow down warming?
But who is we, exactly? I’m going to think harder about when I use the term. Because when it comes to our role in this profound global problem, we are not the same.