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The super rich could help stop climate change by being better at sharing

By Jack Palfrey

May 7, 2019


After years of pinning the responsibility of preventing the worst excesses of climate change on the individualuse paper straws, recycle, don’t use plastic bags, and buy an electric carpeople are finally starting to see the existential threat of climate change for what it is: a crisis of capitalism. That nearly a third of England is being hoarded and kept in the firm clutches of a staggeringly wealthy eliteone that’s been able to spend centuries ensuring their land is passed on from generation to generation with minimal interventionis, to put it simply, obscenely wrong. So, what are we to do and how does this fit into the question of climate change?

Though many are still reluctant to accept that the only way to fight the impending crisis is ultimately by overthrowing the unsustainable yet all-consuming might of global capital, with its devotion to perpetual growth on a planet with dwindling resources, there is still hope to be found in the fact that people are actually talking about the need for systemic changeeven if it sometimes doesn’t quite go far enough.

In April we saw Extinction Rebellion mobilise thousands on the streets of London protesting against the government’s lack of action, engaging in disruptive direct action across the city for nearly a fortnight. All the while, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg continued her global tour with seemingly every European media outlet in tow as she passionately rallied against the politicians who are responsible for the mess we find ourselves in. Although arguably a somewhat empty gesture, the U.K. parliament even officially declared that we’re now in in the midst of a ‘climate emergency.’ Despite any reservations you may have about the effectiveness of all, or some, of the above, it is still a testament to the fact that the public consciousness has become increasingly attuned to the severity of the problems facing us and the urgency with which we need to fight back.

That’s not to say the radical anti-capitalist critiques and strategies we desperately need aren’t being made though. Whether it’s AOC’s ‘Green New Deal’ in the U.S., Labour’s calls for a ‘green industrial revolution’ or the emergence of think tanks and campaigning bodies such as Labour for a Green New Deal and Common Wealth, the argument that decarbonisation has to be at the heart of any transition beyond capitalism (and vice-versa) has been picking up steam; highlighting the need for radical state intervention and a whole new political and economic way of life if we truly stand any hope of preventing the crisis.

But despite the increasing popularity of these ideas, the same question always rears its head: how are we meant to pay for it? After all, the work we’ll need to do (first and foremost, investing massively in renewable energy and public transport) will, of course, require huge amounts of money. Though, contrary to what we’re led to believe, there are a multitude of ways in which we could fund the action we urgently need to takethe choice being a political, not economic one. And yes, that means we need to remodel taxation in a way that sees the richest people and corporations make a far greater contribution.

Perhaps perfectly articulating the need for a new system that’s both environmentally sustainable and curbs the unequal distribution of wealth under capitalismas well as opening a vantage point in which we can begin this process—could be the first step towards change.

Some new research by the author Guy Shubshole for his book Who Owns England? found that half of all land in England is owned by less than 1 percent of the population. Without even unpacking those statistics they go a long way in showing the need for radical change but what makes that especially clear is the fact that 30 percent of that land is controlled by the aristocracy and gentry.

Well, first, it’s clear that we urgently need to remodel taxation in such a way that’s heavily weighted towards those with excessive amounts of land. Whether it’s by reforming inheritance tax or introducing some sort of land value taxa form of taxation based on the market value of the land itself, not just the property that sits on topthe money that could be raised through such measures would be hugely valuable if invested in green technologies and infrastructure. Better yet, on top of this, through incentivesor, you know, force (desperate times call for desperate measures)we could just straight-up expropriate some of the vast rural land that’s hoarded by the aristocracy and use it for wind and solar farms or even rewilding, which would not only help us on our mission to decarbonise but, in the case of the latter, actually reduce some of the damage we’ve done already.  

Obviously, the above strategies simply won’t be enough on their own. The task ahead must be rooted in the local, national and, most importantly, international. Even if England alone manages to decarbonise, our efforts won’t be enough if similar commitments aren’t made worldwide. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try though. Despite the fear that ‘overpopulation’ being the problem, the richest 10 percent of the world’s population is responsible for half of all CO2 emissions and just 100 corporations are responsible for 71 percent of emissions.

So, it seems only right that the first order of business for any sort of left-wing environmental project should be turning to the super wealthy first. Taking the problem of land hoarding by the elite and turning it into an opportunity to tackle climate change would not only be slightly satisfying, given they are the ones that have created this mess, but also, in the long run, be a huge benefit to not just the environment, but people and communities too.