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Will the rich escape climate apocalypse?

Climate change
Richard Branson, the billionaire owner of Virgin Atlantic airlines has funded a $25 million program to suck greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere, a method not proved to yield substantial results in hitting zero-carbon targets. The aviation industry contributes to 2 per cent of global emissions.  REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez

Each day, it seems, a new headline in a newspaper or social media feed makes clear just how close we are to environmental destruction. And yet politics seems eternally consumed by the same old nonsense, governments whining about migrants or penny-pinching over austerity. Where is the political response to climate change?

The disturbing truth is that it’s already here. With the effects of climate change already beginning to devastate the Global South, Western governments are militarizing their borders against anticipated refugees. The investigative journalist Christian Parenti calls this response ‘the politics of the armed lifeboat’. If you’re not already on it, you’re in line to get shot.

Seen from this perspective, rightwing populist movements like Brexit, as well as Trump’s whole ‘build the wall’ thing, can be considered as nascent climate-change policy responses, or perhaps just indicators of what’s to come. As ever, I suppose, Western governments are willing to sacrifice the rest of the world in order to keep their own citizens relatively content.

But even people callous enough to support the Right in these various ‘security measures’ would be well advised not to allow themselves to get too complacent. In time, the tide will turn on most of us sailing inside the armed lifeboat as well. And I don’t just mean because the weather’s going to get even less predictable.

The selfish interests of the rich already diverge from those of the poor. Last year’s record-breaking wildfires in California were fought, in part, by private firefighters hired by insurance companies to protect only the houses of those able to afford their services. While everything else burns around them, the estates of wealthy homeowners are sprayed with flame retardant and surrounded by fire-breaking trenches.

In Miami, rising sealevels are driving gentrification, with richer residents buying houses in traditionally poorer areas that sit on higher ground; those they displace are often forced to seek affordable housing in areas where flooding is more common. By this logic, as Miami is gradually claimed by the sea, the poor will be the first to drown.

When it comes to the super-rich, things get even more extreme. Tech billionaires like Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel have already bought property in New Zealand/Aotearoa, which is perceived as a safe haven. Last year, the country passed a law banning most foreigners from buying homes there – but billionaires needn’t worry too much about that, as Thiel’s former Paypal colleague Elon Musk has plans to colonize Mars. For those who can’t make it into space, Silicon Valley speculators like Sam Altman and Google’s Ray Kurzweil are preparing to upload their minds to supercomputers and live forever in ‘the cloud’.

Some of these responses might seem ridiculous, the result of boys who read too many sci-fi books managing to luck their way into far too much money as men. But, crucially, they offer these billionaires the promise – whether futile or otherwise – that they might be able to ride out the apocalypse without doing the thing that would most benefit us all: mitigating or reversing the effects of anthropogenic climate change. The tech writer Douglas Rushkoff tells stories of super-wealthy men asking him how plausible it would be to use special disciplinary collars in order to maintain the loyalty of a private army in the event of environmental collapse. I, for one, can’t wait to be drafted.

The actions of rich preppers are a reminder that climate change is class war. The super-rich will let the rest of us burn because it simply isn’t in their interests to curb their excess. It has become starkly apparent that billionaires are a luxury no society can afford. We owe it to ourselves as a species to requisition Peter Thiel’s property in New Zealand and prepare a wave of cyber-attacks against Ray Kurzweil’s mind. That would be the political response to climate change we all need.

New Internationalist issue 519 magazine cover This article is from the May-June 2019 issue of New Internationalist.
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