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How Income Inequality Contributes to Climate Change

J. Mijin Cha

Here’s another reason why income inequality is so destructive—it’s ruining our planet and increasing the severity of climate change. A new paper from the Center on Economic and Policy Research looks at a novel way to slow climate change: reduce the hours that we work. For reasons that are not entirely understood, shorter work hours are linked with lower greenhouse gas emissions. By just reducing the annual work hours by 0.5 percent for the rest of the century, one-quarter to one-half of global warming not locked in -- i.e. the warming that will already occur due to the 1990 levels of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere -- would be eliminated.

Unfortunately, the high level of income inequality makes reducing work hours very difficult in the U.S. Between 1973-2007, nearly two-thirds of all income gains went to just the top 1 percent of households. This very small minority of households could have their work hours reduced and absorb the accompanying decrease in pay. The vast majority of households, however, are working more hours and increasing productivity, but seeing a reduction in take home pay. As my colleague Joe Hines detailed, workers are increasing hours and output, but seeing their pay fall. With this level of economic insecurity, workers cannot afford to work less, even if it is better for the climate.


Americans already work many more hours more per year than western European countries. In 2005, Western European work hours per person were roughly 50 percent less than the U.S. The average German worker works 20 percent less per year than the average American. The greenhouse gas emissions per capita in America is nearly twice that of Germany. Again, the reasons for this relationship is not entirely clear but reduced work hours increases leisure time, which gives people more time to cook, versus eating out, or walk, instead of drive, and other sustainable practices. Working less could also decrease commuting time and carbon footprint. Unfortunately, only a few households can currently afford to work less and have more free time.

Increasing wages for the average worker is not only good for our economy, it’s good for our planet.