Deadly wildfires sweeping California have already taken 50 lives, wrecked 7,700 homes and destroyed an entire town. In less than a week, the fire in the north of the state has stretched over 125,000 acres, and more destruction lies ahead as firefighters will be unable to contain the fires fully until the end of the month.
Amid the terror, one Californian family is safe. The Kardashians. Celebrity business mogul and reality TV star Kim Kardashian and her husband, the chart-topping rapper and producer Kanye West, have hired private firefighters to protect their home in the Los Angeles gated community of Hidden Hills. The area was evacuated last week.
A team of firefighters armed with hoses was paid to keep the fire from their £46m mansion. They also dug trenches to create a fire break between it and the neighbouring field. This has prevented the fire from burning their house down – and therefore those of their neighbours (as it’s at the end of a cul de sac). Since the private firefighters went in, neighbours have praised Kardashian and West for their decision, according to the showbiz news site TMZ.
Of course, preventing a devastating fire from spreading is not a bad thing in itself. But that two of the wealthiest and highest-profile celebrities of our age can afford to protect themselves while other people cannot – and are paying with their lives for it – starkly exposes California’s acute inequality.
Victims of the fire have already been overlooked by coverage that has focused on the houses of other celebrities – including popstar Miley Cyrus and actor Gerard Butler – being destroyed in the Malibu area.
But the Kardashians’ private firefighters tell a story that goes beyond California. Climate change – causing record-breaking temperatures to dry out vegetation, earlier springs and shorter periods of rainfall – have exacerbated the fires there. And climate change everywhere is a class issue.
A study of climate change’s economic consequences in the US last year found that America’s poorest areas – hot, southern and Midwestern counties, with below average incomes – will suffer the most from the economic impact of climate change on the country. Poor agricultural yields, lower productivity and increasing mortality and crime rates are predicted for such places, while richer states won’t shoulder the same burden.
In the UK, poorer areas suffer the most from extreme flooding – and corresponding weaker infrastructure that fails to protect their lives and homes.
“It will be the communities linked by only one bridge, with poor roads, with only one shop, dependent on one industry, business or factory, that bear the brunt when the rains come, the harvest fails or the transport links go down,” wrote former Labour adviser Polly Billington in a paper about climate change and inequality in the Renew journal last year. “In cities it will be those in poor housing that endure the worst of extreme heat in summer, flash floods and exhausted sewers.”
It’s the same picture globally. Global warming reflects and perpetuates global inequality. While rich westerners pollute the earth – creating the most carbon emissions – the poor in the developing world face the consequences. The rich are also more mobile when the consequences finally reach them. It’s far easier for them to escape climate change’s effects – just like the Kardashians could decamp elsewhere during their town’s evacuation – than for, say, subsistence farmers who depend on Lake Chad (90 per cent of which has dried out in the past 50 years), or more than 30 million people in Bangladesh who could be displaced by the fastest recorded sea level rises in the world, to migrate.
“Having the means to easily leave somewhere has always been the preserve of those with money, but red lines are being crossed when escaping a forest fire is dependent on personal wealth,” says Oliver Hayes, a climate campaigner at environmental pressure group Friends of the Earth.
“Unless world government get to grips with the unfolding climate crisis, an even more dystopian part of the near future could well be a risk that unless people have loads of money, they’ll be unable to avoid the worst excesses of natural disasters.”
Rescuing their house with wealth may be an extreme example, but the Kardashians’ response to the wildfires is a symbol of the inequality climate change fuels – and will continue to fuel to far greater extremes.