How Capitalism is a Driving Force of Climate Change

By Lauren PollockHumanities, Special Issue: Pandemics & Politics, 2020



Global economic growth leads to the increased consumption of natural resources, pollution, and loss of biodiversity and simultaneously widens the income gap between the wealthy and the poor. Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 provides a fictional glimpse of the world 120 years in the future, examining the severe environmental changes that have taken place and how people of upper and lower economic classes are unevenly impacted by these changes. The experiences of the fictional characters reflect real issues that future generations will experience as irreversible changes to our climate are made.

“We’ve been paying a fraction of what things really cost to make, but meanwhile the planet, and the workers who make the stuff, take the unpaid costs right in the teeth” (Robinson 4). Modern economic growth and demand for goods require rapid production at low costs, leading to the inevitable exploitation of nature and workers. Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 explores the world one hundred and twenty years into the future, where the drastic continuation of climate change has resulted in a 50-foot rise in the global sea level, destroying coastal cities worldwide. Each section of the novel is broken into 8 parts, seen through the eyes of 10 different characters living in New York City in the year 2140. The characters hold various roles in society, ranging from political leaders to investors to orphaned children. Each of the characters’ lives intertwine, showing their daily interactions amid a changed and chaotic world. Robinson depicts what everyday life would look like for New Yorkers, and the rest of the world, if no significant measures are taken to prevent climate change and environmental destruction. The novel highlights the income inequalities that both drive climate change and influence how people survive those changes. This paper examines two important narratives in New York 2140 to argue that climate change is driven by capitalism, which in turn changes how people experience climate change.

Global capitalism and economic expansion are driving forces for both income inequality and climate change. The global economy within New York 2140 reflects the same systems in place today, with the existence of global capitalism driving production and consumption. Most climate scientists have come to agree that the cause of climate change is the increased emission of greenhouse gases, specifically carbon dioxide, which have increased rapidly since the Industrial Revolution (Baer 2). Progressive scholars recognize the serious damage that results from a global capitalist drive. Endless efforts of private owners to expand and increase their profits force a “perpetual treadmill of production and consumption” relying mainly on fossil fuels or alternative sources of greenhouse gas emissions (Baer 4). In 2010, the International Energy Agency projected that by 2030, global energy use would rise over 50%, with fossil fuels still the primary source of energy (Baer 64). Our continued dependence on the fossil fuel industry will continue to raise global temperatures as a direct result of global capitalism. The most profitable decisions will never be the most environmentally friendly, thus private owners of corporations will refrain from making environmentally conscious decisions without regulations.

In the United States, although the median household income reached a high in 2018, the gap between the poorest and wealthiest households is the biggest it has been in 50 years, potentially due to tax policies and declining labor unions (Chappell). This disparity continues to widen even among 10 years of Gross Domestic Product growth and low unemployment rates, reflecting a “significantly higher” income gap in 2018 than 2017 (Chappell). These statistics present a serious concern that economic expansion will be unable to decrease inequality between American households, an idea which is also reflected in New York 2140 through the characters Franklin, Stephan, and Roberto. In order to mitigate the impacts of climate change, it is important to understand that “the commitment to free-market policies only generates a combination of positive economic growth, increasing emissions and increasing inequality.” In other words, to decrease inequality in combination with continued economic growth would require policymaking that reforms carbon tax as well as prices carbon efficiently (Liobikienė and Rimkuvienė). The difference in ways that wealthy and impoverished people experience climate change is an important topic that will become increasingly relevant as we continue to see global temperatures rise.

In the novel, the author evaluates several perspectives from which individuals experience climate change. One of the many perspectives analyzed by Robinson is shown through the eyes of Franklin Garr. Franklin’s chapters are narratives from the first-person point of view describing his career success and personal life. He works for a large and profitable hedge fund called WaterPrice, which tracks global sea-level rise in relation to the stock market. A large accomplishment for Franklin was his creation of the IPPI index, (the Intertidal Property Pricing Index) a combination of a housing index with sea-level changes, tracking inflation rates and pricing for intertidal properties, despite being unable to predict if the sea level will remain stable in the future. Franklin lives in the MetLife building, a skyscraper connecting his life to several other characters from the novel. His entire career and industry benefit from making bets based on the rise and fall of sea level, showing that large companies and investors still live profitable and successful lifestyles even after drastic changes to global environments occur, continuing to worry only about their individual assets.

In our modern reality, the individuals in the top 10% of incomes are credited with over 36% of greenhouse gas emissions, while people that fall in the bottom 50% are only responsible for 15% of emissions (Liobikienė and Rimkuvienė). This displays a pattern that while wealthier people, like Franklin, are more at fault for the rise in global temperatures, they tend to be unaffected or even experience benefits from environmental damage. A changing climate is only seen by Franklin as something that is affecting the economy, not the source of mass extinction, food scarcity, and displacement of millions of people worldwide. He explains that destruction of coastlines and homes have opened the door for new investment opportunities, stating “Am I saying that the floods, the worst catastrophe in human history, equivalent or greater to the twentieth century’s wars in their devastation, were actually good for capitalism? Yes, I am” (Robinson 118). Climate destruction is brought about by economic expansion but then adds to the profitability of wealthy people by making their investments more lucrative and their property scarce, and thus more valuable.

On the other hand, people in poverty experience negative impacts at the hands of climate change. An alternate point of view reflected by the novel are the chapters written in the third-person point-of-view of two twelve-year-old orphans, Stephan and Roberto. These boys occupy most of their time by searching for sunken treasures in the canals and scavenging for diving tools. Neither of them knew how to read at the beginning of the story, since they were not enrolled in school, and later begin to learn from their elderly friend, Mr. Hexter. Stephan and Roberto also do not have legal status in the United States or birth certificates, so they become wards of the MetLife building to gain protection. While the fictional aspect of the novel entails the boys finding a large amount of gold after searching for treasure in the canal, their story can be looked at more realistically to analyze what would happen to two children without parents or homes in the event of a natural disaster, in this case, a devastating flood. Studies show that individuals in poverty are more likely to be harmed by climate stressors. As reflected in the novel, this harm is expected because individuals in poverty lack the financial resources to help them recover from natural disasters, such as floods and hurricanes, which become more common as global temperatures rise (Leichenko and Silva). At the time of the third flood, the boys were downtown in the Bronx and got stuck since the waters were rising too fast for them to get back uptown to safety. The two were forced to wait out the storm downtown and were not heard from for several days, with no access to phones to call for help or food to eat. This demonstrates what happened to thousands of individuals living in the poorer downtown districts, which are at a lower elevation and thus more susceptible to flooding, who became trapped. In addition to their lack of resources, poorer individuals also tend to work in job fields that depend on a consistent climate. For example, they may rely on jobs in agriculture, forestry, or fishing, which are all industries that are harmed by environmental damage, multiplying the discrepancies between how individuals on opposing ends of the income spectrum experience climate change (Leichenko and Silva).

New York 2140 presents these two differing perspectives between a hedge fund manager and two orphans and how they are impacted by climate change, making a larger commentary on how income disparity presents itself in our changing world. In the novel, wealthy New Yorkers are seen living uptown in large skyscrapers with extravagant lifestyles little impacted by mass flooding“ and—in some circumstances—even experiencing benefits. A sharp juxtaposition is seen downtown, which is half-submerged due to the rise in sea levels, where individuals in poverty suffer from displacement due to global changes. Working for WaterPrice has brought Franklin financial success and he lives a prosperous and classy lifestyle. He owns his own boat and eats out at rooftop restaurants and waterfront bars. On the other hand, Stephan and Roberto lack access to resources to help them escape the flooding and end up stranded downtown for days. In the novel, human life perseveres but the gap between the haves and have-nots continues to grow, as the wealthy have enough resources to be unaffected by the destruction of the environment or play the system to their advantage, while the poor struggle to stay afloat—literally—in a flooded world.

Towards the end of the novel, New York is hit by a third wave of flooding destroying the homes of thousands of people. After the flood, a character named Charlotte, who works as a social worker for the Householder’s Union, begs the mayor to allow the thousands of people who were living downtown to be offered refuge in the uptown towers, which are owned by wealthy individuals. She claims that “more than half the apartments uptown are empty because they’re owned by rich people from somewhere else” (Robinson 500). This exchange furthers the point that the poorer citizens are unable to afford the proper housing that would keep them safe from the floods, while the wealthier citizens can afford to own multiple homes in areas that remain safe from rising sea levels. This is comparative to modern society from a global perspective, where the level of pollution in high-income countries is 33.9 times higher than in low-income countries, leading researchers to believe that as more countries become developed, the negative impacts on the environment will continue to increase (Liobikienė and Rimkuvienė). Continued rising global temperatures and sea levels will expand the gap between the haves and have-nots as the homes of people who only can afford dangerous low-elevation areas are destroyed, making them homeless.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 uses multiple perspectives to evaluate the different ways that climate change will affect individuals on opposite ends of the income gap. Global capitalist economies are a root cause for increased greenhouse gas emissions, leading to rising global temperatures and sea levels, as seen within the fictional novel 120 years into the future. The characters Franklin, Stephan, and Roberto show how wealthier individuals are less likely to experience a serious impact from climate change while poorer individuals, responsible for less fossil fuel usage, are likely to experience serious changes. The ideas presented within the novel draw attention to real world issues and provide a sense of urgency for regulatory measures to be taken to limit fossil fuel usage. It is crucial to focus political and social efforts toward slowing climate change before human activity causes irreversible damage. Economic decisions should be made while taking future generations into consideration and supporting a level of economic growth that will be sustainable.



Baer, Hans A. Global Capitalism and Climate Change: The Need for an Alternative World System. AltaMira Press, 2012.

Chappell, Bill. “U.S. Income Inequality Worsens, Widening To A New Gap.” NPR.Org,…. Accessed 4 Nov. 2020

Leichenko, Robin, and Julie A. Silva. “Climate Change and Poverty: Vulnerability, Impacts, and Alleviation Strategies: Climate Change and Poverty.” Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, vol. 5, no. 4, July 2014, pp. 539–56. (Crossref), doi:10.1002/wcc.287.

Liobikienė, Genovaitė, and Daiva Rimkuvienė. “The Role of Income Inequality on Consumption-Based Greenhouse Gas Emissions under Different Stages of Economic Development.” Environmental Science and Pollution Research, vol. 27, no. 34, Dec. 2020, pp. 43067–76. Springer Link, doi:10.1007/s11356-020-10244-x.

Robinson, Kim Stanley. New York 2140. Orbit, 2017.


Lauren Pollock

My name is Lauren Pollock, and I am a freshman from Greensboro, North Carolina. I am currently undecided on my major, but I am interested in sustainability and health science.

Lauren Pollock

My name is Lauren Pollock, and I am a freshman from Greensboro, North Carolina. I am currently undecided on my major, but I am interested in sustainability and health science.