Climate change is deeply intertwined with race, class and gender. I’d like to focus on the who of different roles we are all playing in the crisis.
First off, note what countries have historically contributed the largest amount to climate change. Essentially, this is wealthy nations whose political systems are dominated by white people: the US, Canada, Europe and Australia. It is both the inventions of white people (the combustion engine most notable in this) and the high-consumption cultures and habits of the western, white world that have landed us where we are today.
Certainly not everyone who lives in these countries are white, but note who controls both the political dialogues and economic agendas in these places. Note as well that the resistance to the policies of heavy consumption of fossil fuels have come most strongly, the world over, from indigenous people, who are neither wealthy (in the ways we typically conceptualize wealth) nor powerful.
Now look from the other end– the impact our actions have had. The places in the world that have thus far taken the brunt of climate effects are largely poor, brown people: witness Syria, India, Thailand, the Maldive Islands, Brazil, China, and within the US, heavily Hispanic Florida, heavily black New Orleans, and Louisiana as a whole, one of the poorest states in the country.
Louisiana’s lost land is particularly illustrative of climate dynamics. D. Phil Turnipseed, the director of the US Geological Service National Wetlands Research Center, calls Louisiana’s shrinking profile “the worst environmental and socioeconomic disaster in North America.” Approximately 1,900 square miles of land mass have disappeared from the familiar boot shaped map of the state, according to the USGS. (1)
When you look at the currently accurate map it is shocking—it’s about 1/3 of the state, gone. Those places in Louisiana where the wealthy have been hit as strongly as the poor, the recovery efforts have been disproportionately going to the wealthier places and neighborhoods, according to the National Housing Institute.
In short, climate change is a problem largely created by (relatively) wealthy white people, and it is a crisis most strongly affecting (relatively) poor brown people.
And many of the potential solutions to climate change are almost as bad from an economic justice standpoint. A flat out carbon tax would be regressive and make it even harder for poor people to manage the most basic things such as getting to work and putting food on their family’s tables (2). The geo- engineering solutions, when you look at them closely (if they worked at all) are most likely to make the global north safer, and deflect the worst disruptions onto the global south, basically reinforcing the systemic racism and classism that exists at a global level between countries (3). Switching over to small-
scale organic agriculture is a terrific idea… for those who can afford it. Without making major changes in the subsidies and regulatory frameworks, it’s an idea that will contribute to more hunger among the people who are already the most vulnerable.
Class-regressive policies also disproportionately impact women, especially single women who are parents. And climate change is already hitting women harder than men in many places. According to the UN, women are usually much harder hit by natural disasters and less able to access relief afterward.
In one particular UN study in China (where climate change has already hit harder than in most places in the world) women make up 70% of the agricultural workforce (which has already been seen to be an especially hard hit population in other countries) and have less access to other work opportunities, land, technology and loans which would make that easier to manage. They also have less knowledge of emergency plans than men. And that’s just one example of how this growing crisis plays out along gender lines.
Bottom line is that we can’t solve the climate crisis without simultaneously looking deeply at racism, sexism and economic injustice. And that means work: hard work to root racism, sexism and classism out of both our individual consciousnesses and our collective culture and systems.