Critical theme: The polluter elite, inequality and the ecological crisis

Critical theme

Independent researcher Dario Kenner has spent years studying the ‘polluter elite’ and how they have blocked the transition to a green economy. At a discussion at IIED's headquarters on 22 July, he showed that their personal wealth and interest in maintaining the status quo opens new options for campaigns.

22 July 2019
An oil rig silhouetted at sunset

An oil rig silhouetted at sunset in the Oklahoma Panhandle (Photo: Gina Dittmer, Creative Commons)

The transition to a greener economy is not inevitable. Renewable energy is growing alongside the deeply entrenched fossil fuel economy and, despite growing scientific evidence, governments still lack the political will to phase out fossil fuels and halt mass species extinction. One of the main obstacles are the vested interests lobbying to defend business as usual.

Dario Kenner has spent several years studying the people who run fossil fuel multinationals, a group he calls the ‘polluter elite’. He discusses how the polluter elite in the United States and the UK have blocked the transition to a green economy in his newly published book ‘Carbon Inequality’. He looks at their personal motivation to defend their net worth and their unequal ability to pollute.

In addition to their consumption, Kenner has begun to quantify personal emissions associated with shareholdings: what differentiates the richest from the rest of the population and opens up new options for campaigns based on historical responsibility.

There is very little time left to dramatically transform production and consumption patterns in the UK and around the world. The polluter elite have defined what is “politically possible” for too long. It is crucial to recognise that while their political power is growing it is starting to be directly challenged by protests on the streets, declarations of a climate emergency and potentially by a Green New Deal.

What role can campaigning organisations play in this evolving context to build on existing campaigns to try to guarantee the long-term changes on the rapid scale that is needed? How can inequality and environmental issues be campaigned on together in tangible ways that engage the public?

Event coverage

See the presentation given by Kenner on IIED's SlideShare channel.

About the speaker

Dario Kenner is the author of the newly published book Carbon Inequality: The role of the richest in climate change (Routledge, 2019). This book builds on his 2015 working paper 'Inequality of Overconsumption: the Ecological Footprint of the Richest', which he presented at a 2016 IIED Critical theme on tackling inequality and unsustainable consumption.

About the Critical theme series

IIED set up the 'Critical theme' discussion series to explore new ideas and to broaden the knowledge of its staff and partners. 

The seminars cover a wide range of speakers and topics. Previous events have looked at 'Gender and environmental change', 'Pollution, politics and social media in China' and the 'Links between climate change and food security'.

Other events have focused on the governance of Marine Protected Areas, the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights (ACHR) and its work on reducing urban poverty, and the importance of meaningful stakeholder reporting.