Who gets to survive climate change?

As the waters rise, the rich are readying their arks to escape oncoming environmental crisis. 

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In November, as wildfires ripped through California, Kim Kardashian hired a squad of private firefighters to protect her $50m estate in Calabasas. During the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Blackwater security guards defended the houses of the hyper rich against feared hordes of looters while their occupants were quietly helicoptered to safety.

Elsewhere, the hyper rich make plans to flee the planet altogether. From Elon Musk’s SpaceX programme to the would-be citizens of space-based micro nation Asgardia, venture capitalist space exploration is being packaged as humanity’s pioneering attempt to save itself from destruction.

These are not anomalies. Private insurance companies like AIG and Chubb have boasted about their increased provisions against the rapidly increasing numbers of natural disasters like wildfires. Others are scrambling to offset their exposure to the gathering effects of climate chaos. As the waters rise, the rich are readying their arks – quietly preparing themselves for climate chaos. If history teaches us anything, it’s that elites build their castles high above the filth.

A common joke rears its head when climate change is mentioned. Another planet asks a sickly earth what is wrong with it. The answer? “I have humans”. It’s a humorous sentiment – but no less dangerous for it. This vision of climate change is bound up with a cynical picture that paints humanity as inherently parasitic, doomed to destroy any ecosystem unlucky enough to host it.

The joke leaves a lingering paranoia that we, as humanity, somehow deserve climate change. That it is some kind of collective punishment for a historic cavalcade of transgressions – leaving lights turned on and taps running, blithely allowing waste to pile up and oil to spill into oceans.

Climate change is, according to this analysis, a moral problem; we have failed to overcome our own natures, to stem the ecological effects of our original sinfulness. This picture sees each of us tasked with a responsibility to reform our wastefulness and destruction. Recycle. Walk to work. Use a refillable water bottle. In Malthusian terms, the solution is to stem the flow of humanity altogether. If people are the problem, we must make fewer people.

This idea is reflected in the language used to describe our uncertain geological era: anthropo-cene. An age of mankind that has fundamentally corrupted the earth, choking the oceans with trash, sedimenting the soil with a vast crust of discarded chicken bones, clogging our bloodstreams with microparticles of plastic.

But in truth, humans are not the problem. The problem is a particular way of arranging humanity’s relationship to the rest of the natural world, in a system focused on ceaseless resource extraction and hydrocarbon consumption in order to funnel wealth and power into the hands of a select few. It’s more commonly known as capitalism.

A small handful of companies are responsible for the overwhelming majority of fossil fuel emissions. Their effects are visited worst upon the poor. Repeated studies have shown that the global poor – left without stockpiles, without armies of private firefighters – are the most exposed to the immediate effects of climate change. If capitalism’s accumulated wealth does not successfully trickle down, its climate miseries certainly do.

It is easy to be amazed at the stubbornness of UK legislators who, after decades of scientific consensus on the dangers of fossil fuels, refute any serious reckoning with the fossil fuel complex. The current administration has embraced fracking with open arms. The Global Warming Policy Foundation, an alleged hub of climate denial, has deepened links with right-wing organisations trying to seize hold of Brexit, determined to roll out a free trade deal that would be reliably disastrous for environmental legislation.

The deadly bullheadedness of climate change denial prompts many to double down on education, treating climate denial as a menace to be bludgeoned into submission by the brute force of facts. It’s an understandable instinct. But oil giants don’t need educating. For years, ExxonMobil covered up its own research that revealed the risks posed by fossil fuel emissions. Its former CEO Rex Tillerson served as US Secretary of State, assisting the Trump administration as it tore up climate accords.

At its root, elite denial isn’t a result of ignorance or suspended disbelief. Concentrated wealth warps perceptions of crisis and immunises elites against the practical and psychological threats of catastrophe. They are convinced of their own ability to survive the apocalypse: cataclysm is a preoccupation of the poor. 

As French philosopher Bruno Latour writes, once elites recognised the reality of climate change, they set to work building a “gilded fortress” for the small percentage of people who could afford to make it through.

“What counts above all for the elites... is no longer having to share with the others a world that they know will never again be a common world”, he adds. 

Even those who publicly acknowledge the existential threat of climate change seem hypnotised by a mythology of resilience – the idea that however doomed our current civilisation might be, “we” can still cling on. Praising the benefits of outer-space settlements, Elon Musk said: “We want to make sure there's enough of a seed of human civilisation somewhere else to bring civilisation back, and perhaps to shorten the length of the Dark Ages.”

Musk has previously called fossil fuels “the dumbest experiment in history.” Take him at his word and one might assume he would be committed to their abolition. Yet he still donates to the Republican Party, which is chock full of climate deniers and can be relied upon to defend the interests of business, if not the planet in which business takes place.

The mystic “we” tasked with outlasting climate change always seems to include those who can afford bunkers, boats and rocket ships to Mars. Rarely does it include the millions of people already on the run from droughts, floods and storms. We can’t chance our collective survival on the shaky inspirations of the mega-wealthy who consider themselves exempt from a shared future on earth. 

Eleanor Penny is a writer and editor at Novara Media and Red Pepper Magazine.