Equality and Global Warming

Inequality fuels status competition, individualism and consumerism. It makes it harder to gain public support for policies to reduce global warming.

During the next 40 years or so carbon emissions will have to be cut by 80 or 90 percent. Politics for perhaps the next generation will be dominated by environmental issues: either with cutting carbon emissions or with the results of our failure to do so. It is therefore important to see how the creation of a sustainable economic system is dependent on greater equality.

The Equality not Growth section describes the evidence which shows that continued economic growth no longer brings real benefits to the rich countries. This is not dependent on an assessment of the environmental damage which could be caused by further economic growth among the rich countries. Instead, it rests primarily on the evidence that economic growth no longer produces increases in happiness, life expectancy, or levels of wellbeing. In addition, the evidence on the prevalence of ill-health and a wide range of social problems shows that for the highly developed affluent countries to get richer still does not improve outcomes, but increasing equality does.

People often imagine that we have a choice between improving the real quality of life by continuing economic growth until the environmental costs overwhelm us, or sacrificing improvements in the quality of life in order to achieve economic sustainability. However, what the evidence shows is that, as further economic growth no longer brings real improvements in the quality of life, accepting the limits of sustainability does not involve real sacrifices. But that does not mean having to accept that the quality of life cannot be improved any further: it is now clear that reducing the scale of income inequalities in each society can make very major contributions to the well-being of whole populations.


The most important obstacle to achieving sustainability is consumerism and the opposition to any policy which appears to be an obstacle to the maximisation of personal incomes and consumption. A very important part of what fuels consumption however is status competition – keeping up with others, maintaining appearances, having the right clothes, car, housing, education etc, to compare favourably with others. All these pressures are intensified by greater inequality.

As a result people in more unequal societies work much longer hours to keep up appearances. They spend more, save less, get into debt more and aspire to ever higher incomes. Robert Frank describes some of the evidence in his books: Falling Behind: how rising inequality harms the middle class (University of California Press 2007) and Luxury Fever: Why money fails to satisfy in an era of success (Free Press, N.Y.. 1999). The evidence that greater inequality leads to longer working hours can be found in: Bowles S, Park Y. Emulation, Inequality, and Work Hours: was Thorstein Veblen Right? The Economic Journal 2005; 115 (507): F397-F412.

Rather than believing that consumerism is an unavoidable expression of human nature which will inevitably prevent us from responding adequately to global warming, we need to recognise that it is a reflection of the social environment created by great inequality and which can be countered by reducing inequality.

Greater inequality makes people more self-serving and individualistic. That is why it is divisive and socially corrosive. It is why (see section on Trust and Community Life) it weakens levels of trust and involvement in community life. A sign of the more public spirited attitudes which go with greater equality is the tendency shown in the graph for more equal societies to recycle a higher proportion of their waste. The graph shows the relationship between inequality and the average ranking of 11 countries in the recycling of 5 different materials: paper and cardboard, aluminium cans, glass, steel cans, municipal waste. The recycling data is from: Planet Ark, Recycling Olympics, 2004.

Not only is greater equality essential if we are to cease squandering the earth’s resources in wasteful status competition, but it is also necessary that policies to reduce global warming are seen to be fair if they are to gain widespread public support. People are unlikely to change their way of life and make cuts if the rich are allowed to produce 10 times the carbon emissions of the poor by continuing to drive bigger cars, heat bigger houses, take holidays by air, and consumes more of everything. To gain popular participation in the war effort during the second world war, the British government had to ensure that people felt that the burden of war was fairly shared. That was why everyone had the same food and clothing rations, why taxes where made much more steeply progressive, and why luxuries were taxed and necessities subsidised. Without a sense of shared participation in a common cause, it will not be possible to prevent runaway global warming.

More Information

Scott Cato, M. Green Economics: An Introduction to Theory, Policy and Practice.Earthscan Publications Ltd. 2008.