A recent StudyUniversity of Waterloo researchers and University of Guelph researchers found that polarization among the rich and poor regarding addressing climate change exacerbates it.
Researchers used game theory to develop a social-climate model that examines how low- and high-income individuals take climate mitigation steps. They found that a rise between the two groups in polarization leads to a global peak climate increase of upto 0.7 C.
The study found that individual socioeconomic conditions affect why an individual takes climate mitigation actions, but perceptions of the other group’s actions have a dominant effect on each other.
“There’s more cost for the poorer group to pursue the climate mitigation strategy,” said Jyler Menard, a computational mathematics master’s student at U of W and co-author of the paper.
He stated that the poor face other daily burdens, such as living expenses, which make climate action more difficult.
“When you look and you see someone who is capable of mitigating the climate or seems to be in a better position than you not doing anything, then you might feel resentful or bitter that they’re asking you to do something,” Menard said.
He added that the study was inspired by France’s Protests for the 2018 Yellow Vest which demonstrated against President Emmanuel Macron’s green tax on fuel that disproportionately affected low-income groups who rely on vehicles for transportation.
“Ostensibly, it’s a way to reduce carbon emissions, but now you are also punishing people who are already burdened,” Menard said.
The study also investigated homophily—the extent to which one listens or is receptive to the opinions or ideas of external groups. They found that both income groups gather with like-minded people and form echo chambers where their opinions aren’t contested.
“We find that these echo chambers are what can drive this polarization in response to climate change,” said Thomas Bury, an applied mathematician at McGill University and co-author of the study.
Bury, who conducted this research during his PhD at U of W, said the study’s mathematical model demonstrates a need for trust between income groups to achieve climate goals.
“Methods of improving communication between richer and poorer groups are very important to mitigating climate change,” he added.
Bury stated that most people believe that climate solutions will reduce the costs of products such a as solar panels. However, the research model showed that reducing costs is not enough if segregation is not reduced.
“Using policies to achieve better communication is a prerequisite to achieving climate goals,” Bury said. “We can’t just focus on trying to make mitigation cheaper.”
Ami Gagné, a director for the national non-profit association of community-based environmental organizations Green Communities Canada and a Carleton University environmental studies and human geography student, agreed with the study’s conclusions.
She said the climate crisis “is not just about mitigating your own greenhouse gas emissions. It has to be understood from a community level, from a national scale.”
“The interconnection of these issues are going to be more and more apparent as it comes to a point when climate change reaches that irreversible tipping point,” Gagné said.
Gagné said connecting the issues of climate change and wealth inequality is important to sparking climate action.
“It’s all about positionality. You just have to know where you are in the world, how you can make a difference,” she said.
Featured image Spencer Colby