A New Twist on Climate Inequality

Tackling the economic divide within countries produces better climate policy and climate politics

A view at the Expo City on the opening day of the United Nations Climate Change Conference COP28 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Jakub Porzycki via Getty Images)

Inequality has always been at the heart of the climate crisis. Traditionally, inequality between countries has loomed largest: Rich countries have been responsible for the most greenhouse gas emissions, but poor countries have suffered the most from the extreme heat, drought, storms, and rising seas driven by those emissions. New research highlighted last week in the Guardian, however, suggests that inequality within countries is just as important.

As journalists cover the COP28 negotiations, which began today in Dubai, this twist on inequality is worth our attention. Ignoring the role of inequality within a nation can cause governments to get both the policy and politics of climate action wrong. A salient example? France’s “yellow vest” protests that erupted after President Emmanuel Macron increased taxes on diesel fuel and that forced Macron to retreat.

The Guardian’s “carbon divide” series, published last week, emphasizes that inequality between nations remains vital to tackle too. Rich countries still aren’t delivering on the $100 billion a year they are legally obligated to provide to help poor countries shift to non-carbon energy sources and boost resilience to climate impacts. In a historic development, countries did agree in  COP28’s opening hours to launch a “loss and damage” fund to compensate vulnerable countries for climate injuries that cannot be fixed, but the contributions pledged to date from rich countries are “a drop in the ocean compared to the scale of the need,” said Mohamed Adow of the NGO Climate Shift Africa.

“[T]he richest 1% of the [global] population produced as much carbon pollution in one year as the 5 billion people who make up the poorest two-thirds,” the Guardian noted, summarizing the research by Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute. The richest 10% are responsible for 50% of emissions, the poorest 50% for 8% of emissions.

Climate policy will be more effective and less politically fraught if it targets the high-emitting wealthy, Lucas Chancel, a co-director of the World Inequality Lab at the Paris School of Economics, told the Guardian. In the case of the “yellow vests” protests, Chancel said, “There were a lot of households that overall emitted relatively little, but their transport emissions were quite high because they live in rural places, and they had no other option than to use the car. So the carbon tax just meant they had less disposable income — it did not reduce their emissions — and there was a backlash.”

Last week, the Dutch far-right PVV party sailed to victory after stoking populist complaints about migration and climate action’s supposed economic costs. (“We will stop the hysterical reduction in CO2,” the party’s manifesto pledged.) In the US, former president Donald Trump justified withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on similar grounds, and Republicans continue to stoke fears that climate action imposes undue costs on everyday people.

Smarter policy can avoid such backlash. For example, a carbon dividends strategy “puts a price on carbon emissions and returns the money straight to the people,” economist James K. Boyce wrote in Scientific American. “Most households would get more in dividends than they pay in higher fuel prices.” Canada’s carbon tax works much the same way.

“Inequality between people has increasingly become a structural impediment to … climate action,” the Guardian wrote. As such, inequality is something we journalists have to integrate into our understanding and coverage of the climate story, both at COP28 and beyond.

From Us 

The Climate Station. Building on the success of our recent newsroom training initiatives, CCNow has launched The Climate Station, a free, customized training program to help local TV stations across the US cover climate stories more effectively. Learn more.

  • With their deep community ties, local television stations are uniquely positioned to bring the climate story home. No one is better suited to tell these stories than local TV reporters, write CCNow’s Kyle Pope and Elena González for The Nation.

Newsmaker interview. The former head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Christiana Figueres, spoke about reasons for outrage over the climate crisis, emphasizing massive fossil fuel subsidies, as well as reasons for hope, such as lower cost renewable energy in an interview this week hosted by CCNow. Figueres said she was “giving up hope” that oil and gas companies could be part of the solution to the climate crisis and lambasted them for their “unforgivable” decision to enrich shareholders rather than invest in renewable energy.

  • Read more at the Guardian (story available for republication by CCNow partners) and AFP.
  • Watch PBS Newshour this evening for the CCNow newsmaker interview with Figueres, by William Brangham.

COP28. Visit CCNow’s new COP28 Resource Hub, which includes our COP28 Reporting Guide, now also available in Spanish.

Carbon capture. Read key takeaways and watch our press briefing “Understanding Carbon Dioxide Removal Before COP28” with leading climate scientists Dr. Katharine Hayhoe and Sir David King.

Misinformation. Read key takeaways and watch our press briefing, “How to Safeguard Against Mis-/Disinformation at COP28”, co-hosted with Climate Action Against Disinformation (CAAD). See their new report “Deny, Deceive, Delay (Vol 3): Climate Information Integrity Ahead of COP28.”

We’re hiring! CCNow is recruiting an Associate Audience Editor and a Regional TV Engagement Coordinator. Learn more.

Noteworthy Stories

Dirty plan. As developed nations embrace cleaner energy, Saudi Arabia plans to artificially inflate oil demand in developing countries, according to an undercover investigation by the Centre for Climate Reporting. The plans include promoting low-cost gas and diesel cars and accelerating the adoption of ultra-polluting supersonic air travel. Watch at Channel 4 News…

Leaked documents. The COP28 host country, the United Arab Emirates, planned to discuss oil and gas deals with 15 nations on the sidelines of the UN climate summit, according to leaked documents, which included meeting talking points. By the Centre for Climate Reporting and Justin Rowlatt at the BBC…

State action. Twenty-four US states are set to develop comprehensive climate action plans for the first time thanks to a $3 million grant program from the Inflation Reduction Act. Plans will include an overview of each state’s greenhouse gas emissions and potential strategies for reducing them. By Emily Pontecorvo at Heatmap…

Carbon’s colonial legacy. If you take colonial rule into account when calculating total historical carbon emissions by country, the math changes significantly, a Carbon Brief analysis finds. The UK share of emissions doubles, while the Netherlands and Portugal’s shares more than triple, with former colonies like India seeing their overall contribution fall. Read more at CarbonBrief…

Geothermal. The first “enhanced geothermal” plant in the US is now producing power in Nevada, sending carbon-free electricity to its grid. The completion of the project, backed by Google, is considered an important step in the global effort to harness Earth’s internal heat as an energy source. By Maria Gallucci at Canary Media…

Resources & Events

COP28 coverage. There will be a massive number of journalists and newsrooms covering COP28 – and we love it! Expect daily news coming out of the summit from outlets including:

COP28 schedule. The UN’s climate change summit will take place from November 30 to December 12. Check out this list of side events taking place during the summit, searchable by category.

COP28, visually explained. Who attends the UN’s annual climate summit, and what do they contribute? What’s the usual rhythm of a COP, and which COPs have helped shape the future — for good and ill? This infographic from klimafakten.de breaks it down.

Picturing our future. New Climate Central visualizations compare projected sea levels over hundreds of years at sites around the world, including COP host cities, based on different global warming scenarios. The images are freely available for media, educational, and non-commercial use.

Jobs, Etc.

Jobs. Mongabay is recruiting a newswire editor, a researcher for its solutions desk, and a video production coordinator. Proof is hiring a data-minded investigative reporter for a six-month contract. Texas Southern University is looking for an environmental journalist/staff writer.

Fellowships. Applications for Knight Science Journalism Fellowships are now open. Apply by January 15.

Grants. The Fund for Investigative Journalism is offering reporting grants to US-based journalists of up to $10,000 for investigative projects exposing wrongdoings in the public and private sectors. Apply by January 29.