The great carbon divide

We are not equally to blame for rising temperatures, and recognizing that is an important step in identifying possible solutions.

The climate chasm between the world’s carbon-guzzling rich and the heat-vulnerable poor forms a symbolic shape when plotted on a graph. Climate-heating greenhouse gas emissions are so heavily concentrated among a rich minority that the image resembles one of those old-fashioned broad-bowled, saucer-shaped glasses beloved of the gilded age: a champagne coupe.

At the top is the wide, flat, very shallow bowl of the richest 10% of humanity, whose carbon appetite – through personal consumption, investment portfolios, and share of government subsidies and infrastructure benefits – accounts for about 50% of all emissions.

Just below is the epicure, that narrowing joint of the glass where the dregs collect. This is made up of the middle 40%, whose carbon habit is roughly proportionate to its number but still double the average carbon budget that everyone would need to stick to if the world is to have any chance of avoiding more dangerous levels of climate breakdown.

Going further down is the long, slim, fragile stem comprising the remaining 50% of the world’s population, whose carbon use tapers away along with incomes. At the bottom are the hundreds of millions who live in extreme poverty and barely register in terms of greenhouse gases.

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