Whether we like it or not, the truth is that the money needed to prevent and resolve climate displacement has not been forthcoming and is unlikely to be for a very long time, if ever. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that 1.6-3.8 trillion (1.6T-3.8T) will be needed each year to avoid warming of more than 1.5C. In 2021, global GDP is just shy of 93T. In 2009 the world’s wealthy nations committed to channel USD 100 billion (100B) to less wealthy countries annually to tackling climate change, but to date have fallen far short from this target. Some have alleged that the estimates of the funds that have been raised thus far are wildly exaggerated, and that even if 100B were provided each year that this would come nowhere near solving the climate crisis. While calculations vary widely from only slightly more than 10B in total to just short of 100B, the prevailing understanding is simply that “Trillions of dollars will be needed each year to meet the 2015 Paris agreement goal of restricting global warming to well-below 2C, if not 1.5C, above pre-industrial temperatures. Of the funds allocated to this initiative, the vast majority is in the form of loans that need to be paid back by countries that face financial difficulties to do so.
To make matter worse, only the tiniest portions have been dedicated to anything linked to solving climate displacement. The world’s governments continue to spend minuscule proportions of their national budgets on climate displacement if anything at all. When they do allocate funds all too often the most costly of all possible plans are selected, much to the joy of the well-connected contractors who will haul in most of that. The world’s climate-displaced persons are already suffering and this is only going to get worse, much worse.
Though many rightly look to the UN for climate displacement salvation, this has not and will not come. The vital role of the UN’s IPCC and many other engagements in the climate change field are indispensable to our understanding and then tackling climate change, but in practical terms, the UN has lagged far behind on concrete initiatives addressing climate displacement and thus far done virtually nothing concrete to assist climate displaced persons. The total number of UNHCR staff, for instance, dedicated to this issue can probably be counted on one hand, with few of those with any field experience working with climate-displaced communities. With some notable exceptions, private donors have equally failed thus far to put their money into projects designed to assist what is by far the largest group of displaced people across the world. Most international organizations ostensibly working on climate displacement issues have done little to nothing of real consequence to support actual climate displaced people, and tend to take highly academic approaches to these real-world issues, holding meeting after meeting and issuing report after report with little actual impact on the people forced by climate to leave their homes forever.
So, given these circumstances, how are we going to pay for fixing the climate displacement crisis? Well, maybe we need to turn to a major cause of the climate displacement crisis – the billionaires – and see what it would take for them to address this massive crisis adequately.
The climate-ravaged planet on which we all depend has never seen climate risks like it is facing today, nor has it paradoxically ever before been home to more billionaires. In fact, we share this planet with nearly 3,000 billionaires, a group of individuals far more responsible for climate change on a per capita basis than any other, and by a very large measure! More than 70% of the world’s emissions come from just 100 companies, most of which are owned and controlled by the world’s wealthiest families. These are allowed to write the rule of the game that ensures they continue to be able to operate. They are given support and almost total leeway by the States in which they operate, which of course include the current and historical worst CO2 emitters. In their daily lives on their mega-yachts, their private planes, and their multiple energy-inefficient homes, the world’s billionaires are disproportionately responsible for the lion’s share of climate change, releasing factors more CO2 per person than other groups in society. They need to do something to rectify and repair this damage. They need to become part of the solution and pay for the damage that has been done. At a global level, even the poorest of billionaires – a billionaire with just one billion dollars – has a net worth that is a staggering and almost unfathomable 133,333 times higher than a person located at the worldwide median net worth! There is nothing that can justify such brutal inequality.
If billionaires and the companies and governments that support them disproportionately caused climate change shouldn’t they now pay to re-house every climate displaced person?
If even just one of these billionaires realized that they could begin to tackle climate displacement by contributing at least some of the money needed to provide new homes to the world’s growing climate-displaced populations, they might be surprised at how much human suffering they could assist in alleviating. The numbers are staggering because if just a single billionaire decided to donate just one billion dollars of his fortune (and I intentionally use the pronoun his bearing in mind that around 90% of the world’s billionaires are men), at the rate of around USD 9,100 per home (the real-world cost of building works we carry out in Bangladesh supporting climate displaced families) he could build 110,000 homes for some of the world’s most climate-vulnerable families. Assuming the average household size of six in the countries most heavily affected, our friend the Earth-destroying billionaire could – at absolutely zero reduction to his own standard of living – build homes for a staggering 660,000 people, which equates to the entire population of a major world city such as Vancouver, Canada. Imagine what could happen if each of the world’s billionaires were to do so?
Let’s see what happens if we ratchet those numbers up a bit and take an average between the World Bank’s figures of 216 million people to be displaced due to the effects of climate change and those of Climate Central which uses the figure of 600 million. That brings us to just short of 400 million people needing long-term solutions to their climate displacement predicaments or 5% of the human race. How much would it take, assuming the figure of USD 9,100/house (the real figure would be far less assuming economies of scale, of course), to build new homes on new land for the world’s climate displaced population; all of whom are forced against their will to move because of the human-caused crisis of climate change? The answer: 3.6 trillion US dollars (3.6T). To the perpetually underfunded ears of the humanitarian-minded who are trying to do something for this exploited group, that might sound like a lot. But to billionaires, is it really all that much? 3.6T amounts to roughly four years of the military budget of just one country, the United States, the country that is historically more responsible for the effects of climate change than any other. 3.6T also represents just 25% of the more than 13 trillion dollars in collective assets owned by the world’s 2,755 billionaires, a group of people that increases by one every 17 hours, even in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. And guess what? The 750 billionaires in the United States alone bolstered their pot of gold by 2.1T in 2020 during the middle of the pandemic in a country where more died than any other. Add in the other 2000 billionaires or so who are not from the US, and it has been pointed out that from March-December 2020, during the first and worst wave of COVID, the collected wealth of billionaires grew by 3.9T! Clearly, this is not about a lack of money.
25% of the treasure chest held in by the world’s richest people in the form of a climate displacement levy could re-house every single one of those to be displaced by the effects of climate change!
I hope these figures of inequality shock Counterpunch readers to the core of your being and make you want to do something about it, for they are a searing indictment of just how unjust our shared planet has become. And yet, if a 1% annual climate displacement levy was placed on the fortunes of the billionaire class for a period of 25 years, magically all the money we would need to solve a big portion of climate displacement problems would suddenly be available. This would amount to USD 10M a year or 250M over a period of 25 years. Just to put this in a perspective readers might more easily relate to, if you earn USD 50,000 per year and you were subject to a similar levy you would have to pay a total of USD 12,500 spread over a period of two and a half decades, or USD 500 a year, to play your part in solving the entire HLP crisis facing the world’s climate displaced population. Imagine you could assist in providing well-built permanent homes for more than 400 million people without feeling it in your pocketbook or having to suffer any sort of decline in your overall standard of living, quality of life or anything else. Is this something you might consider doing? If you are reading this article you probably answered yes, but will the world’s billionaires hear the call?
Elon Musk, as the world’s wealthiest person now has a net worth approaching USD 300B, so he alone could come close to providing 33 million homes for climate-displaced families. Some have predicted that he may one day become the world’s first trillionaire! Put him, Zuckerberg, Bezos, Arnault, Bettencourt, Ambani, Ellison, Branson, Walton, Slim, all those Russians who have had their offshore accounts already frozen and a few others together in a consortium and we’d be able to solve the climate-induced HLP crisis many times over. Space can wait, but the world’s climate-displaced families should not have to.
And to those who say there isn’t enough land available to house all these people, this is simply not true. There is more than enough land to go around. Our detailed research, using highly conservative estimates of the number of people to be displaced and the amount of land that each household would require to re-establish itself reveal that far less than half of one percent of the world’s land surface could easily re-house everyone displaced by climate change. Using a high-end estimate this would be roughly the size of Uganda and using the lower end of the estimated scale, this would be the size of Costa Rica or the Australian state of Tasmania. It has never been a question of land supply, but one of access.
Sadly, few if any of those reading this article will find themselves in that group of 2,755 billionaires, however, a huge proportion of those scanning this article now are found within the world’s top 10% richest people. It might not feel like it to many people, but if you make more than USD 40,000 a year, you, yes you, are in the global 1% of income earners. For every one of you, thus, there are 99 who are poorer. If your overall net worth – all of your assets minus your liabilities – surpass USD 129,000 you are in the global top ten percent. Even if you don’t feel rich as such, with life remaining hard, bills always needing to be paid, and that feeling that there’s never enough money left at the end of the month, viewed in global terms you are doing pretty well, and clearly much better off than our displaced friends who are moving in ever-growing numbers to escape the tragedy of their homes and lands no longer being viable.
As much as I wish the billionaires would jump in and help to solve this problem that they have helped to cause in so many ways, I am not holding my breath. Most billionaires became billionaires by thinking largely about themselves, and even those few who have devoted large sums to philanthropy often do so far more out of self-interest in perpetuating the very system that allowed them to become so rich than anything else. If you don’t believe me, just read Anand Giridharadas’ Winner’s Take All to get the full story.
Perhaps world leaders will finally accept that something has to be done and issue a 25% climate displacement levy, spread across a period of years on all global billionaires to ensure that these new hundreds of millions of newly displaced people have somewhere else to go besides the slum. In the meantime, before the billionaires start handing out that 3.6T we need to house people displaced due to global warming, or prior to the proposed levy being issued and enforced, the global climate change movement needs to add the call to build new, permanent homes for everyone displaced by climate change. A billionaire climate displacement levy can get us closer to this aim than ever before.
1. https://www.ipcc.ch. ↑
2. https://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/countries-by-gdp. ↑
3. See, for instance, Jocelyn Timperley, The Broken $100-billion promise of climate finance – and how to fix it: At Glasgow’s COP26 summit, countries will argue for more money to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change in Nature, 20 October 2021. ↑
4. Id. ↑
5. https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2017/jul/10/100-fossil-fuel-companies-investors-responsible-71-global-emissions-cdp-study-climate-change. ↑
6. World Bank, Groundswell Part 2: Acting on Internal Climate Migration, 2021.
7. https://www.climatecentral.org/news/picturing-our-future. ↑
8. See, for instance, Scott Leckie (ed), Land Solutions for Climate Displacement, Routledge, 2014. ↑
9. Anand Giridharadas, Winner’s Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, Deckle Edge, 2018. ↑