Polluter Elite

Dario Kenner adds to the analysis of the Carbon Oligarchy with another exceptional book Carbon Inequality. He points out that our political and economic elites, the centres of power, are a ‘polluter elite’. Their power and wealth is also expressed as pollution.

This makes it crucial to understand the role of the richest in shaping environmental outcomes in the US and globally. In the US many of the largest fortunes were based on oil and automobiles from the 1890s onwards.

Kenner Carbon Inequality, p.5.

Wealth, power and freedom are tied up with an ability to pollute:

  • Through consumption and lifestyle. Massive air travel, private jets, private ocean going vessels, luxury imports. Energy wastage.
  • Emissions made through investments and return on investments – i.e. through investing in polluting and destructive industries.
  • Political influence and the ability to protect pollution through ‘State capture’.

We might summarise this as the polluter elites have the ‘right to pollute and poison others;’ the right to ignore harms to others produced by their own actions; the right to be unconscious of the damage they cause; the right to ignore the limits of the planet; and the right to expect the State to suppress protest against pollution with force.

These points are, if you will, the direct face of the carbon oligarchy and their violence.

Given the dominant political power of the oil & gas polluter elite the low-carbon transition will only happen on the large scale and at the rapid speed that is needed if they are weakened.

Kenner Carbon Inequality p10

Note this is not just because they are wealthy and powerful, but because as well as being dedicated to wealth and power, they are dedicated to destruction and harm in the protection of that wealth, power and liberty.

The term ‘polluter elite’ (I’d probably prefer ‘Polluter Oligarchy’) is also useful to remind us that Carbon Dioxide and Methane are only part of the pollution picture. Other forms of harmful pollution, in their origins, produced by relatively small numbers of people are also routine. Although Kenner rarely heads in that direction, it is implicit in the work.

This elite has the ability to shape the consumption choices of the general population to skew them towards lifestyles that are intertwined with fossil fuels, and other forms of pollution, so that the average citizen remains “addicted” those to fossil fuels and other forms of pollution, and they remain within an intersecting set of social systems which reinforce the pollution, and the wealth generated by pollution. Again, we need to realise that we are not just dealing with private companies, but with State owned companies, who use the State directly to support and ignore the pollution that they produce.

The Polluter/carbon Oligarchy has been in existence since at least the second quarter of the Nineteenth Century (Kenner 39), when industrialism started to render cities, atmospheres and rivers poisonous: what John Ruskin summarised in quasi-religious terms as the apocalyptic “Storm Cloud of the Nineteenth Century” although he did not directly tie it to industrialism, the tie is implicit as is the more obvious tie to his audience’s moral blindness and refusal to care for ecology and its beauty [12], probably because of intertwining of monetary wealth and pollution.

The Polluter/carbon Oligarchy stretches across the world. We have the polluting elites and the polluted lower classes, everywhere. It is not perhaps just a matter of the developed world vs the developing world, although it is part of that contest. The ultra rich everywhere protest against environmental protection [13], and in a plutocratic social environment their ‘vote’ counts for more than those being harmed.

A report by Lucas Chancel and Thomas Picketty from 2015 states:

Global CO2e emissions remain highly concentrated today: top 10% emitters contribute to 45% of global emissions, while bottom 50% contribute to 13% of global emissions. Top 10% emitters live on all continents, with one third of them from emerging countries…

Our estimations show that the top 1% richest Americans, Luxemburgers, Singaporeans, and Saudi Arabians are the highest individual emitters in the world, with annual per capita emissions above 200tCO2e. At the other end of the pyramid of emitters, lie the lowest income groups of Honduras, Mozambique, Rwanda and Malawi, with emissions two thousand times lower, at around 0.1tCO2e per person…

[The bottom 50% of emitters produced] 13% of world emissions

Chancel & Picketty Carbon and inequality: from Kyoto to Paris Summary.

Other research presents similar data and estimates. For example the Oxfam report, ‘Confronting Carbon Inequality,’ suggests that:

The richest one percent of the world’s population are responsible for more than twice as much carbon pollution as the 3.1 billion people who made up the poorest half of humanity during a critical 25-year period of unprecedented emissions growth.

Between 1990 and 2015… [t]he richest one percent were responsible for 15 percent of emissions… during this time – more than all the citizens of the EU and more than twice that of the poorest half of humanity (7 percent).

During this time, the richest 10 percent blew one third of our remaining global 1.5C carbon budget, compared to just 4 percent for the poorest half of the population.

Oxfam Carbon emissions of richest 1 percent more than double the emissions of the poorest half of humanity 21st September 2020

In more detail the report states that between 1990 and 2015:

The poorest 50% have made 7% of cumulative emissions and have remained steady since 1990.
The middle 40% have made 41% of cumulative emissions and are responsible for 49% of emissions growth since 1990.
The richest 10% have made 52% of cumulative emissions and are responsible for 46% of emissions growth. The top 5% alone are responsible for 37% of emissions growth. Oxfam p3-4

Wealth asymmetry is tied up with pollution amongst other problems. Wealth asymmetry also makes change difficult. As Kenner points out:

When previous civilizations collapsed one common driver has been that the elite were able to insulate themselves from the impact of their decisions. Often the elite were motivated to seek personal profit even if in doing so they harmed the rest of society…

Mackay argues that even when societies have possessed sufficient technology and cultural knowledge, they have not used these solutions because the oligarchy has blocked them. Instead, the oligarchy has captured decision-making to enrich themselves and strengthen their own power [see 14]

Kenner, p53.

This is symptomatic of what I have called the Toynbee Cycle.

As Kenner implies, in these circumstances, the polluter elite should not be seen entirely as wealth creators but also as wealth destroyers, “where wealth is understood as the necessary conditions for a habitable planet.” (Kenner 57) ‘Monetary’ or ‘material’ prosperity (‘riches’) is not just an unmitigated good, it is (necessarily?) accompanied by destruction and harm, or by what Ruskin called ‘illth’ [15], [16]. Again resistance to diminishing the harm occurs because capital investment is sunk into harmful procedures and infrastructures such as rigs, mines, pipelines, railroads, refineries, tankers, which cannot be stopped without loss to the oligarchy (Kenner, p. 67).

The oligarchy has access to the State, it appears to be part of what keeps the State functional, and hence has access to taxpayer’s money, and this is reinforced by the neoliberal ideology that that business and the market are the main important things in life.

between early 2017 and the end of 2018 the Trump administration had successfully eliminated 47 environmental rules mainly related to fossil fuel extraction and emissions, and was trying to eliminate another 31 rules. [Popovich] The elimination of these rules helped to reduce costs for fossil fuel producers. This made them more competitive abroad which is one factor in the rise in US coal exports. Trump approved the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines. He removed regulation on leasing for oil and gas operations on federal lands. He gave the green light for drilling for oil in US coastal waters.

Fenner p.71

Noeliberalism has also led to massive tax cuts for the wealthy and wealthy organisations which has helped incapacitate the ability of those parts of the State which seek to avoid environmental disaster to act to prevent that disaster, while the dogma of growth reinforces the reluctance of the State to act against industries which have traditionally brought about employment, State revenue and cheap available energy – even if they are not currently bringing in that much revenue to the State.

Naomi Klein points out that it is often argued that fighting against climate change requires some people to engage in self-sacrifice, and this obstructs action. However, over the last 40 years most people in the West have been persuaded to engage in a self-sacrifice which has boosted the oligarchies – calls for austerity and sacrifice to support neoliberal dominance and economic stability have been successful.

we have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis…. [Sensible actions] are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets….

The three policy pillars of this new era are familiar to us all: privatisation of the public sphere, deregulation of the corporate sector, and lower corporate taxation, paid for with cuts to public spending.

Naomi Klein How will everything change under climate change? The Guardian 8 March 2015

They justify these lessening of people power by terms like “liberty,” “free markets” and “choice” which have, in practice, meant eliminating most restrictions on the ability of wealth elites and the Polluter Oligopoly to do as they please, and ignore the costs.

We have sacrificed for the Oligarchy, even if we sacrificed because we were deceived, now it may be time for many to sacrifice for the sake of our continuing place on Earth.


If we wish to survive and to limit ecological destruction and climate change, then we have to recognise the power and prevalence of the ‘Polluter & Carbon Oligarchy.’ They are not mere innocents making money and bringing prosperity, they are also stuck into bringing destruction, and issuing propaganda in favour of that destruction, or hiding that destruction. The wealth they have enables them to defend themselves and keep the destruction going. They are not just businesses, but are tied into the State, and tied into State, subsidy and protection, the more securely the more voters are convinced into abandoning the State and leaving the State to them.

At the least, we have to challenge tax and other subsidies given to the Oligarchy, challenge regulations that make it easier to pollute and destroy ecologies – such as offsets, carbon accounting and so on – and challenge imaginary technologies like carbon capture and storage, or geo-engineering, which appear to make it ok to keep pollution going on. We may need steadily increasing carbon and pollution taxes to levy revenue for the State and to compensate those among the community who face higher prices. We may also need subsidy, and plans, for communities to set up their own renewable power generation, to free them from dependence on the Oligarchy, and to make energy use, revenue and control, local and more democratic. We may need to make environmental regulation more secure, which sadly may be used to raise ill-will against the general transition.

Protests and legal challenges against expanding coal mines, gas field and oil fields – may fail, but they also keep bringing the issue into public view and they add to the costs of the Oligarchy’s operation. The more that new pollution can be delayed, the more likely that renewables will replace what was ‘needed’, and the fossil fuels become uncompetitive.

One positive sign is that in 2016-17, according to Fortune Magazine, 5 of the top six companies in terms of revenue were fossil fuel companies. Now in its August 2021 list only 2 of the top 6 are oil and gas companies, and only 6 of the top 25 are fossil fuel companies. This does not mean that fossil fuels, pollution and destruction are not important for the operation of the other companies, but that the balance is possibly changing.

But the Oligarchy is unlikely to give up without combat. This is a struggle which will not stop for a long time, but it is one we cannot afford to lose.