Wealthiest 1% fuelling climate breakdown are giving new meaning to the phrase, ‘man-made disaster’

The biggest individual polluters are white men in the global North. Understanding this is one of the keys to addressing the root causes of the climate emergency.

An Opinion Piece by the Climate & Environmental Justice Working Group of MenEngage Alliance

The richest people in the world, who are predominantly white men, contribute the most to climate and ecological breakdown. Meanwhile, the poorest and most marginalized populations are enduring the consequences.

In Oxfam America’s response to the IPCC Synthesis Report, Climate Policy Lead Nafkote Dabi noted that “[t]he richest 1 percent exhaust [their individual annual] ‘carbon budget’ in just 12 days each year, while the poorest 50 percent of humanity emits less than half [their annual ‘carbon budget’] over an entire year.” This statement points to the shocking disparity in the levels of culpability between the rich and poor when it comes to carbon emissions.

There is, rightly, much focus on how demographics and identity intersect among those most affected by climate change. The poorest people, and especially those facing multiple forms of discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality and other factors, are least responsible for the problem, yet most affected by it, bear the largest burden to adapt or respond, with the least resources available.

If the same intersectional gender lens is applied to those most responsible, a clear pattern emerges: The wealthiest individuals, who have the biggest carbon footprints, are white men in the global North. The 22 richest men in the world have more wealth than all the women in Africa, according to an analysis by Oxfam. These statistics alone warrant more attention to be paid to the gendered intersectional root causes of the climate crisis

Why it matters: Men, masculinity, and climate change

Compared to other genders, men are often less likely to engage in environmentally conscious behaviors (such as taking public transport or eating less meat), and less likely to feel guilty about environmentally destructive lifestyle choices. Overall, men tend to have a larger carbon footprint than women.

Social and cultural norms continue to associate “being a man” with characteristics of dominance, power-over, control, and self-interested competition. These norms are historically rooted in a European colonial logic; one that promotes cultures of masculine command over nature and over others. This patriarchal and colonial mindset has been working for centuries to create the political and economic systems we see today – based on extraction, exploitation, unsustainable growth, and corporate power.

It is no coincidence that human characteristics that do not fit this way of thinking—such as care, compassion, collaboration, nurture, and balance—are often associated with femininity. They are the characteristics valued least, yet needed most, in the face of multiple global crises of wellbeing for all people, living beings and the planet.

Dismantling harmful ideas around gender is essential for a healthy society and planet. All of us—including men and boys—must do the work of unlearning restrictive gender norms in order to be able to live authentically, sustainably, and with respect for one another.

Yet, rather than seeking a just transition, most governments are banking on market-based systems and unproven technological solutions—often put forward by the billionaires perpetuating the problem. Reaching for techno-fixes is typical of a colonial and patriarchal logic that aims to maintain the status quo while resisting critique of the systems of extractive capitalism that have come to dominate the globe.

The future we need to work towards is one in which all people can thrive in balance with the natural systems with which we all are interdependent. Reaching this vision will require us to transform patriarchal and colonial practices, policies, and mindsets. This includes transforming patriarchal norms of masculinity. It includes work to engage more men and boys—including men in positions of power—to care and act together with girls, women and people of all genders who lead the work for climate change adaptation, mitigation and resilience.

Men in power must be held accountable

All people with the means and privilege to do so must play a positive and active role in the work for climate justice, in whatever way we can. Yet there are some people who bear the greatest responsibility based on their positions of wealth, power, and responsibility for ongoing greenhouse gas emissions.

Men in positions of extreme wealth and power must be held to account for their role in climate change and their impunity must end. The 2017 Carbon Majors Report found that just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of emissions since 1988. These huge corporations and the people, mainly men, who lead them, must not be allowed to continue stifling attempts to transform the unequal, unsustainable economic systems underpinning the climate emergency.

The historical record will look back favorably on the Indigenous, youth and feminist voices leading the calls for climate justice. It will not be so kind to the men in power who opposed change when they had the chance—and capacity—to help drive it.

Practical tools towards global solidarity for climate justice

Three tools that can end impunity and help shift the power from the 1% to the 99% are proposed by feminist climate justice movements and others:

  1. An international law against ecocide is a promising entry point to create the systemic change needed to stop the climate crisis, ending impunity of its biggest perpetrators by removing profit incentives to invest in fossil fuel extraction or other activities destroying the ecosystem.
  2. Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty
  3. Cancel the debt for climate justice

MenEngage supports the international adoption of these  tools as part of our commitment to  work to dismantle unequal power structures and patriarchal systems to advance the feminist systems change agenda towards social, economic and environmental justice. 

This opinion piece was developed collectively by the Climate & Environmental Justice Working Group of MenEngage Alliance. The Climate & Environmental Justice Working Group works to support MenEngage Alliance in embedding climate justice in our collective work and thinking—across the Alliance—as part of a systems-change agenda. It consists of activists, researchers and practitioners working at the intersections of gender, masculinities, and climate justice.

01 September 2023