The klaxons have long been sounding on the existential threat climate change poses to humankind. Now, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has issued its latest report, which signals a “code red for humanity” according to United Nations Secretary General António Guterres. The doom chickens are set to come home to roost: extreme weather, institutional breakdown, armed conflict, resource scarcity, refugees. The crisis is driven by extraction, exploitation, and consumption, led by the industrialized world with high per capita rates of emissions—double that of the poorest populations.
For decades, the wealthiest of the wealthy have piloted us towards oblivion. They are the leaders of the industries that have dictated ways of living which patterned and incentivized market behaviours yielding extraordinary, unsustainable profits. Those who dared to wonder if our model of “progress” was ultimately a suicide pact, gilded but not less deadly, were marginalized, dismissed as opponents of the 45 degree angle of advancement that extended humankind towards perfection. Now, some of those same elites are preparing their parachutes.
As the destabilizing effects of climate change become more common, widespread, and persistent, we encounter a familiar pattern: inequitably shared consequences. The masses live with devastation, with those least capable of bearing the burdens asked to carry the most weight; the rich, they flee—cowardly, cynical, criminal, but safe—unless, of course, Hell happens to exist.
The bunkerization of elite contingency strategies is a version in miniature of the national survivability ranking—a parlour-game past-time that’s taken on a macabre, defeatist air in recent years. In July, researchers from Anglia Ruskin University published an analysis in the journal Sustainability entitled “An Analysis of the Potential for the Formation of ‘Nodes of Persisting Complexity.’” Despite its abstruse title, the ‘nodes of persisting complexity’ refer simply to geographical locations that, in the coming anthropogenic climatic breakdown, may experience “lesser effects” from collapse—that is, nation states possessing the optimal characteristics to support large populations while human civilisation enters a “precarious and perilous position with regards to its future.”
In response to the study, Mic published an article titled “These 6 countries are most likely to survive a climate change-cased societal collapse,” noting that while “no place will go entirely untouched by the planet’s continued warming and ensuing fallout,” New Zealand was determined to offer the most favourable circumstances for “persisting complexity” (that is, keeping our institutions and way of life going, more or less).
As AJ Dellinger writes, “Silicon Valley billionaires have been eyeing the island for years.” Australia—specifically Tasmania—and Ireland make the top three, too. Other contenders include Iceland, the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada.
Billionaires are typically caricatures of themselves. Their climate escape plans—an inverted iteration of their space endeavours—are proof of point. For years, they have extracted resources and wealth, privileging the few over the many. Now, as mass breakdown appears on the horizon, they prepare to flee with their treasure, leaving everyone else behind.
The apocalypse boltholes also represent a cynicism, or perhaps nihilism, that feigns hope but prepares for disaster, exuding a privilege reserved for the very few. In that sense, the class who prepares to flee betray the sociopathy that has underwritten their drive towards ultra-elite wealth in the first place. But what these escape plans represent is a class dedicated to their own interests above all, extending solidarity to none outside their in-group, which is to say, their class.
Making emergency plans when the likelihood of an emergency is high isn’t itself a problem. Would it be that each of us could do just that. But making a mess for everyone and then abandoning them to the fate you’ve led them towards is a class of betrayal all its own. The structural shift required to arrest emissions and drive them into decline, to de-carbonize and alter consumption patterns, to remake cities and countries, to re-pattern transit, to transform food systems, calls for all hands on deck; the collective effort required to avert the worst of the climate catastrophe—which can and must be done—demands that those who are most responsible for this state of affairs are held to account for their actions, and that their resources are put to work in the service of protecting humankind, and doing so equitably.
In other words, rich folks need to be all-in on addressing the code red warning we face. They do not deserve and should not be permitted an escape pod. They should be held to account for their role in leading us into the climate emergency. That includes not just the wealthy ultra-elite, but the petite-elite capitalist class who created and maintained the structure and supporting institutions that we have long-known are unjust and unsustainable.
The world’s richest people emit the most carbon. According to Oxfam, the wealthiest 10 percent of the population produce half of the planet’s individual-consumption-based fossil fuel emissions, while the poorest 50 percent (about 3.1 billion people) contribute only 10 percent. In other words, the wealthiest among us “blew one third of our remaining global 1.5C carbon budget.”
Beyond elite apocalypse machinations, the escape narrative is an insult to Indigenous peoples whose stolen land in countries including New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the United States exist upon. It is also an insult to refugees who, for years, have fled states—often destabilized in the first place by Western powers—only to face hardship, exploitation, and rejection in the countries listed as higher-probability climate survivor states. Meanwhile, those with means plot their plans as they please. We can’t even imagine a climate apocalypse without making it colonial and white supremacist. It’s so us.
Elite abandonment and narratives surrounding the hierarchy of survivable states reflect a vision of the climate crisis as an extension of the same classist and colonial approaches to life that produced this emergency. Those who would abandon humankind, having amassed great wealth without responsibility for their extraction, ought to be given no quarter in their search for a life free from the collective consequences of their actions. Moreover, our focus ought to be on mass mitigation and adaption work—the struggle of choosing better over worse, while there is still time. From that labour, no elite should escape.
David Moscrop is a contributing columnist for the Washington Post and the author of Too Dumb for Democracy? Why We Make Bad Political Decisions and How We Can Make Better Ones. He is a political commentator for television, radio, and print media. He is also the host of Open To Debate, a current affairs podcast. He holds a PhD in political science from the University of British Columbia.