McMansions Will Doom Us All

The Playboy Mansion in Beverly Hills is probably bad for the planet. (Photo: Gabriel Bouys/AFP, Getty Images)
The Playboy Mansion in Beverly Hills is probably bad for the planet. (Photo: Gabriel Bouys/AFP, Getty Images)

If you needed another reason to eat the rich, here it is. A new study has concluded that high-income residents in the U.S. emit an average of 25% more greenhouse gas emissions than low-income residents through their energy use.

The paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Monday, looked at data covering about 93 million homes in the U.S. The authors studied residential energy use from 2015 by state, zip code, income level, building age, and even floor space. The analysis is one of the most comprehensive out there yet on what factors influence a home’s energy emissions.

“We found a dataset with info on each individual home in the U.S., including year built, floor area, condition, heating system type, AC type,” author Benjamin Goldstein, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Michigan, told Earther in an email. “We were, thus, able to model energy use and [greenhouse gas emissions] from ~100 million U.S. homes. This has never been done in the U.S. or any other country.”

Residential emissions — which make up about 27% of national greenhouse gas emissions — vary from region to region. That’s because if someone lives in a colder area, they’re going to need more energy to heat their homes. However, the carbon footprint of the energy homes use varies depending on the source. An energy grid powered by coal is a lot dirtier than one powered by solar. States with coal-heavy grids had the highest greenhouse gas intensity, including North Dakota, Oklahoma, West Virginia.

But the results also show that wealth plays an important role in greenhouse gas intensity. Richer people tend to live in larger homes with fewer people squeezed within their walls. As a result, they emit more greenhouse gases because the larger a home, the more energy it needs. The study shows a wealthy person’s home can be 15 times more carbon-intensive than a lower-income neighbour.

This is especially important because while rich people contribute the most to the climate crisis through their mansions, they’re the least likely to be screwed should disaster strike. Meanwhile, lower-income families that emit way less must bear a heavier burden when a hurricane or wildfire rolls through. As leaders begin to plan how to reduce emissions in the U.S., they need to grapple with that truth and find equitable solutions.

The authors found that high population density often correlated with lower floor area and lower greenhouse gas emissions. However, the notable exception the authors flag is New York City. The city has a high population density, but the paper notes New York fucking sucks because it has a “carbon-intensive grid.”

The new study show how income could also play a role in cleaning up U.S. residential emissions. Wealthier households will have to pull their weight to address the burden their lifestyles put on the rest of us. They can use their extra funds to install solar panels and heat pumps on their property, according to the study. After all, they’re the ones contributing the most to these individual emissions in the U.S. But they can’t do it alone.

“It is important to note that individual households cannot solve this issue alone,” Goldstein said. “The U.S. needs coordinated action across scales and sectors to reach [the goals of the] Paris [Agreement]. This includes the decarbonization of the electrical grid alongside the necessary improvements to the housing stock.”

And while rich people do a lot more damage to the planet than those less well-off, we must remember fossil fuel companies (and the ultra-rich people who run them) are the true villain here. They certainly have the money to bear that cost.