Rich Americans produce nearly 25% more heat-trapping gases than poorer people at home, according to a comprehensive study of U.S. residential carbon footprints.
Scientists studied 93 million housing units in the nation to analyze how much greenhouse gases are being spewed in different locations and by income, according to a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Residential carbon emissions comprise close to one-fifth of global warming gases emitted by the burning of coal, oil and natural gas.
Using federal definitions of income level, the study found that energy use by the average higher income person’s home puts out 6,482 pounds of greenhouse gases a year. For a person in the lower income level, the amount is 5,225 pounds, the study calculated.
“The numbers don’t lie. They show that (with) people who are wealthier generally, there’s a tendency for their houses to be bigger and their greenhouse gas emissions tend to be higher,” said study lead author Benjamin Goldstein, an environmental scientist at the University of Michigan. “There seems to be a small group of people that are inflicting most of the damage to be honest.”
In Beverly Hills, the average person puts four times as much heat-trapping gases into the air as someone living in South Central Los Angeles, where incomes are only a small fraction as much. Similarly, in Massachusetts, the average person in wealthy Sudbury spews 9,700 pounds of greenhouse gases into the air each year, while the average person in the much poorer Dorchester neighborhood in Boston puts out 2,227 pounds a year.
“That is the key message about emissions patterns,” said University of California San Diego climate policy professor David Victor, who wasn’t part of the study. “I think it raises fundamental justice questions in a society that has huge income inequality.”
Even though richer Americans produce more heat-trapping gases, “the poor are more exposed to the dangers of the climate crisis, like heat waves, more likely to have chronic medical problems that make them more at risk to be hospitalized or die once exposed to heat, and often lack the resources to protect themselves or access health care,” said Dr. Renee Salas, a Boston emergency room physician and Harvard climate health researcher who wasn’t part of the study.