Researchers from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Psychology in the UK identified several ways in which people of high socioeconomic status have a greater impact on global greenhouse emissions than the average person, and therefore should also have a greater responsibility to promote climate change mitigation (1). This group of people can shape the choices themselves and others make, with the possibility of either exacerbating or mitigating climate change.
Most research so far has focussed on how we can reduce the impact of climate change as a whole, including switching lights off or reducing the use of plastic. The authors suggest that it may be better to find ways to specifically motivate people of high socioeconomic status to change their behaviour, as they can have a much greater impact on carbon emissions.
The study defined high socioeconomic status not only based on wealth and income but also occupation and social network. It’s more than just the super-rich; this group includes everyone with an annual income higher than 100,000 euros.
“High socioeconomic status people aren’t just those with more money, but those with stronger social networks. Their connections can enable them to influence behaviours and policies to help mitigate climate change – and we need to find ways to encourage them to do this,” said Dr Kristian Nielsen, first author of the paper. “By saying it’s only the super-rich that needs to change their behaviour, we ignore the power that others have to help tackle climate change through their influence.”
For example, over 50% of the greenhouse emissions caused by air travel comes from 1% of the population. This highlights the need to change how frequent flying is accepted by society, particularly by people of high socioeconomic status. “People of higher socioeconomic status could also act as role models, making more climate-friendly choices that influence others – for example driving electric cars or eating a vegan diet. You don’t need a massive income to be a role model; you just need to be well-connected,” said Nielsen.
Another way for those with a high socioeconomic standing have to fight climate change is through their investments. Although much has changed in the past few years and most large pension funds are moving away from investing in fossil fuel companies, researchers defend that the investment portfolio of wealthy individuals can still have a significant influence.
In addition, wealthy individuals can help mitigate climate change through their businesses and organisations, for example, by picking “green” suppliers or being careful with their investments. These people also have access to politicians and decision-makers and can make important donations to advance social change.
“Our study focused on people of high socioeconomic status because they have generated many of the problems of fossil fuel dependence and associated climate change, which affect the rest of humanity. And they are also well positioned to do something about it,” said Nielsen. “When certain people change their behaviour for the good of the climate, it can have spill-over effects that go way beyond the effects of the average person, and lead to systemic change.”
(1) Nielsen, K.S., Nicholas, K.A., Creutzig, F. et al. The role of high-socioeconomic-status people in locking in or rapidly reducing energy-driven greenhouse gas emissions. Nat Energy (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41560-021-00900-y