Are the rich safe from climate breakdown? Yes, and we should do something about that

Peter Kalmus is a climate scientist, and a climate activist. He’s doing work that’s desperately needed, and deserves our support. That said, I’m not sure whether I agree with how he framed a wildfire in California. The fire destroyed several multimillion dollar mansions near Laguna Beach on May 12th, prompting Kalmus to point out that the rich aren’t safe from Earth breakdown.

This feels like one of those times when something is technically correct – no human is safe from climate breakdown – but maybe less correct from both a practical and a tactical perspective. I admit that this may be a bit of a petty hair to split, but for some reason my brain hasn’t been cooperating today, but it’s happy to provide whatever this post is. I want to say again, because the internet seems to thrive on bullshit controversy, that I’m not “attacking” Peter Kalmus. If you want to categorize this post, you can view it as a well-meaning propagandist musing aloud about his craft. Ok? Ok.

There are three reasons why I think this post may be a little misguided. The first is that in practical terms, the rich are safe from climate breakdown. They’re safe from it in their heads, and their wealth will protect them from it for a long time. I think it’s fair to assume that everyone who owned those mansions had good insurance plans for them. Maybe there are some people with houses like that who would be ruined by the loss, but my impression is that for the most part, people with homes like that tend to have other homes in other locations. They can relocate without much difficulty. They might lose things of sentimental value, and they might even become slightly less wealthy, but that’s not the same as what happens when a normal person’s home burns.

The amount of safety will depend on how obscenely rich they are, but for the people at the top – the ones who could make a real difference on the climate issue if they cared to – it could well be more than a lifetime before their wealth runs out, if we don’t change how the world works, and take it away from them.

My second quibble is with what seems like an appeal to the wealthy. I see the value in trying to get those with power to do something, but I don’t think this accounts for who they really are – they’re people whose lives have demonstrated to them that they really can spend their way out of any problem. They are also people whose power and wealth came from having the means to make the world better, and choosing to enrich themselves instead. My impression of history is that they won’t learn the error of their ways until they are forced to by circumstance. If climate change is that circumstance, then it may be too late for the rest of us by then – it will take time for the wealthy to exhaust their resources.

Remember – these are people who can just buy themselves a state-of-the-art bunker on a whim, and stock it with a decade’s worth of food and water, without even considering where that money’s going to come from. They will try to create a neo-feudal climate hellscape with order enforced by paramilitaries fitted with shock collars, and by the time that fully falls apart on them, everything will be much, much worse. I don’t think they believe that they’re not safe, and I don’t think we can afford to wait for them to find out.

Finally, I worry that appeals like this perpetuate the idea that we have to ask our rulers to save the world. To quote Frederick Douglass, power concedes nothing without a demand, and I think the whole world will be far better off if we get our acts together and make that demand as soon as possible. The alternative is waiting until climate change scours away all of their power, and if that’s the path we take, they’ll use as many of us as human shields as possible to protect themselves. How many people will die by then? How much of our dwindling hope will be gone?

We should proceed as though the wealthy are safe from this global catastrophe, at least in the time frames that really matter right now. They’re safe for the same reason everyone else is not, and that should make us angry. They’re safe from climate change, and as long as that’s the case, humanity itself will continue to be in danger.

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  1. StevoR says


    The endpoints, the years, the way we’re trending now.

    I wonder if the rich again realise that? Or think abiout what alternatives they are leaving us? Do they think they are immune? (Probly?) Do they really think they can and always will get away with all they do and are and won’t face the ultimate consequences ultimately to everyone’s detriment? Probly? Becuse histrioy, precendt, ignorable – until it isn’t & happens all over again in different ways with different names but with the same old plots. Including cemetary ones.

    * Sorry to be so eurocentric here.. the oen’s I know a bit about and sure ather e are many otehrs I should know and discuss betetr here as well.

  2. says

    History seems to indicate that every generation of rich people thinks they can get away with it. The problem is that history is right about that most of the time – we can list off dates like that, but note that those three are spread out over centuries. The rulers who were overthrown there were the children of rulers who were just as bad – they’d just had fewer generations to plunder their countries.

    These days? These days rulers always have a private jet or helicopter nearby, and they just go to another country to live out their days in opulent retirement (until they or their children manage to take back power). All of these fuckers have the very best in private transportation, surveillance, mercenaries with high-tech weapons, and a variety of governments around the world with which they’re friendly.

    As long as they have jet fuel, they can always get away, at least until the world is reduced to a wasteland with a few bunkers scattered around.

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