Many factors work against addressing climate change in the United States: energy demands for everyday life (heating our homes, fueling our cars, etc.), vested interests in industry and government, and economic inequality. Here, I focus on economic inequality. As the November 2020 election for president and Congress has made clear, the United States is starkly polarized on economic and social issues. The question here is: How does economic inequality undermine climate science?
Addressing climate change requires replacing fossil fuels with sustainable energy that involves hard choices and sacrifice. This will affect all of us, but it will have the most impact on the less advantaged. This transition will usher in a period of what I have called micro-industrialization. This is a major reason why climate science is questioned most by disadvantaged people—those with the lowest incomes and fewest opportunities. Addressing climate change would mean the further reduction or elimination of jobs mostly held by lower-income workers in the fossil fuel, manufacturing, and agricultural industries. White-collar jobs would be less affected by climate change measures, at least in the short term, because those workers have more of a financial cushion.
Growing inequality has been shrinking the American middle-class since the 1970s, with a larger proportion of the population becoming less affluent and a much smaller proportion becoming more affluent. This imbalance has led to what social scientists call relative deprivation. That is, deprivation becomes a social problem if others, particularly those from other social groups, have more opportunities and affluence.
This growing proportion of less advantaged people set the stage for a populist movement, which is most evident among Trump’s followers, who are mostly white, rural men without college degrees. In contrast, those who are more affluent tend to live in urban areas and have college and advanced degrees. The former group has experienced a greater decline in their incomes and a relative lack of future opportunities over the past several decades.
So even though all of us will face dire consequences from the effects of climate change, right now the less advantaged are the most impacted. They reject climate science by claiming that it is a hoax and that if the climate is changing at all it is due to natural factors. Some also claim that climate science is part of a conspiracy foisted on the poor by the “socialist,” urban elites. This is fostered by conservatives in government who are more beholden to the threatened interests of big business than they are to the people they are supposed to represent. This contributes to polarization whereby the disadvantaged come to distrust the elite’s climate science. Thus, climate science denial and conspiracy theories abound.
To successfully implement climate change measures, the needs of disadvantaged groups must be addressed.In my opinion, an important part of a successful climate change initiative would be for the federal government to support the less advantaged by extending the CARES Act, redistributing wealth and income via a revised income tax law, and creating jobs, such as FDR’s Works Progress Administration. These initiatives would bring us more in line with our counterparts in other advanced, industrial societies that have historically provided a better “safety net” via more progressive taxation, universal health care, publicly financed daycare, and other social services. How such legislation would be passed remains to be seen. Although reducing our inequality would not address our social divide (e.g., on issues of race, gender, abortion rights, gun rights, and separation of church and state), minimizing economic inequality would make addressing climate change just a bit more palatable.