By Sam Killmeyer

During the coronavirus pandemic, billionaires have increased their net worth by $637 billion (and climbing) — while the rest of the country struggles to survive during the compound crises of COVID-10, climate change, racial injustice, and surging unemployment.

graph of billionaires increasing wealth during coronavirus pandemicJust as it’s hard to understand the vastness of the climate crisis (it’s very, very big, and very very bad), it’s also hard to understand how big a billion is. This may help: one million seconds is about 11 days. One billion seconds is 32 years. Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, is currently worth $156.8 billion. In seconds, that’s 5,017 years. 


Billionaires have more money than ever before to throw at investments that are destructive to our planet, block climate legislation, and actively profit from the oil & gas industry. More so, the wealth that we’ve created — and concentrated at the top in the pockets of billionaires— has occurred at the expense of the climate and the exploitation of workers. But that doesn’t have to be the case, we can create wealth through just, green initiatives and ensure that wealth is shared by everyone, not just the one percent.

How did we get here? How can we move forward equitably?

Profiting From Crisis

While this moment is, in many ways, unprecedented, enriching the billionaire class during a crisis is an age-old strategy. Our government’s response to the 2008 housing crisis was to provide aid to banks and corporations, with homeowners receiving just 10 percent of the direct relief. By 2009, high-net-worth individuals recouped their losses. By 2020, the billionaire class increased their wealth by over 80%. During our current crisis, $243 million of the paycheck protection program went to large corporations. 

In regards to climate, the fossil fuel industry is leveraging the pandemic to secure bailouts and roll back regulations on drilling. As I write this, the Trump administration is laying out the terms of a leasing program to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This is just one of many handouts to the oil companies, and Drilled has a very thorough list of climate change-related rollbacks during the pandemic. 

While billionaires like Bezos aren’t directly profiting from these fossil-fuel bailouts, they are part of the same system that enriches corporations during crises, rather than supporting people. They are also profiting from investments, as the stock market continues to rise despite the economic distress the majority of Americans feel right now.

In this critical moment, we must work together to demand that relief goes to mutual aid, direct community relief, and community-driven solutions — not bailouts to corporations that exploit employees and the environment in order to enrich their CEOs. Billionaires see our current crisis as just another opportunity to increase their wealth. But it doesn’t have to be — we can create a regenerative economy that works for the many, not the few.

Billionaire Greenwashing

While the rich continue to profit from the crisis — both the pandemic and climate crisis — many also work to brand themselves as climate activists. Billionaires like Bezos and Musk work to set themselves apart from people like the Koch brothers, who use their wealth to spread climate denial and block climate legislation, yet their money has been made by the theft and exploitation of people and the planet. 

In February, Bezos committed $10 billion to address climate change. Bloomberg has promised to use a few of his millions to help end coal. Elon Musk rails against fossil fuels and climate change, while he attempts to capture the market on electric cars. While it’s true that Musk has popularized electric vehicles, Teslas require a massive increase in mining for their batteries, in places like Bolivia, where extraction poisons local water supplies. 

More so, Tesla’s solar technology and the green future that Musk advocates for is only accessible to the rich, and will lead to “grid defection.” A Planet To Win: Why We Need A Green New Deal defines grid defection as: “resource-intensive solar separatism for the rich and the geographically lucky” who hide in their “affluent enclaves.”   

Tech CEOs like Musk and Bezos sell themselves as geniuses whose innovation will save us from the climate crisis, but with the current economic and political structures in place, they are simply contributing to the same world that preserves their wealth at the expense of everyone else. 

Tax the rich. Save the planet.

A progressive tax system is the only way to level the playing field. While researching this article, I learned that from 1930 to 1980, the US tax code had an average top marginal tax rate of 78 percent. And it exceeded 90 percent from 1951 to 1963. The proposed wealth tax to fund the Green New Deal is 70 percent.

As you might have guessed, the Reagan administration dramatically cut those rates, to 50% when he took office, all the way down to 28% when he left. Taxes paid by billionaires decreased 79% between 1980 and 2018. And that doesn’t include all the illegal ways that billionaires avoid paying taxes — such as offshore tax havens.

We don’t need the money of billionaires to fund the Green New Deal — as I wrote in a previous newsletter about a green stimulus plan, the earlier coronavirus aid packages demonstrate that we already have money to use for emergencies — but we should take it anyway, and stop billionaires from continuing to exploit people and our planet.

Creating billionaires is a policy choice. And we can choose, instead, to redistribute wealth and invest in ambitious plans that have the potential to create systemic change, like the Green New Deal. 

What Can I Do?