GCSC Seminar: How Inequality Exacerbates Climate Change

By Maria Archibald, Sustainability Office. Photo credit: Dave Titensor/University of Utah

When Dr. Lazarus Adua read a book about “super polluters”—or major powerplants that account for a large chunk of global carbon emissions—he was inspired with a new research idea. “I was thinking—could the same thing apply at the household level?” Adua says. “I wanted to look at it with households, thinking about the super wealthy households as similar to the big power plants.”

Dr. Adua is assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Utah. On February 15 from 4-5 p.m., he will give a GCSC seminar called “The Downside of the Gap! Examining the Impacts of Inequality on Environmental Views and Outcomes in the United States.” The talk will explore Adua’s central research question: “when inequality expands in the country, how does that influence our impacts on the environment?”

Some economists believe that increasing inequality reduces environmental impacts, but Adua’s research challenges this notion. “What I am doing is to take those kinds of argument and bring it to the household level,” Adua explains. “I look at the extent to which expanded inequality among American households is impacting the environment.”

Adua’s initial findings show that inequality at the household level leads to increased carbon dioxide emissions and environmental impacts. “As incomes become more concentrated, those at the very top pollute a lot more than those at the very bottom,” says Adua.

While it might be expected that wealthy people contribute more to carbon emissions than their lower-income counterparts, Adua’s research shows that the impact on the environment by the affluent is disproportionate to their income and lifestyles. “Common sense tells us that wealthy people overall do consume more, and therefore they would pollute more,” Adua says. “But I wanted to go beyond that to show that the rate of consumption is actually way beyond what you would expect in terms of supporting even a luxury life.”

“There is an effect that is beyond just being wealthy or being upper income” says Adua, whose research also links inequality to opinions that preclude government funding for environmental protection. “The reason is simple: environmental views of the public can sometimes influence whether politicians or policymakers will take any actions related to the environment.”

Adua hopes attendees will leave his seminar with a better understanding of the connections between environment and inequality, and a commitment to addressing both. “I want people to see that if you deal with inequality, you actually will be in some ways dealing with climate change,” says Adua. “There is a public advantage to dealing with inequality…even if you don’t believe that we should address it for its own sake.”

“If you’re sitting in the in the audience and you don’t care about inequality, but you care about climate change, well these two things are married in some ways,” Adua says. To learn more about the intersection of climate change and inequality, register for Adua’s GCSC Seminar on Feb. 15 from 4-5 p.m.