By Jeremy Williams
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, it was the city’s black neighborhoods that bore the brunt of the storm. Twelve years later, it was the black districts of Houston that took the full force of Hurricane Harvey. In both cases, natural disasters compounded issues in neighborhoods that were already stretched.
Climate change and racism are two of the biggest challenges of the 21st Century. They are also strongly intertwined. There is a stark divide between who has caused climate change and who is suffering its effects. People of color across the Global South are those who will be most affected by the climate crisis, even though their carbon footprints are generally very low. Similar racial divides exist within nations too, due to profound structural inequalities laid down by a long legacy of unequal power relationships.
For some, it can be disconcerting to hear terms such as “racism” and “white supremacy” used in discussions about climate change. Climate change is often understood as an environmental issue, one that we are all in together, and therefore not something that could be in any way construed as racist.
Historical and present-day injustices have both left black, indigenous and people-of-colour communities exposed to far greater environmental health hazards than white communities – Veronica Mulenga
But there are many dimensions to racism. The most visible is inter-personal racism, which is ugly and all-too familiar. At its most obvious, this would include racist graffiti, online abuse, or racist chanting at football matches. Much of it is less overt than that, a matter of prejudice and stereotyping.
This is often where discussion of racism stops, with the world neatly divided into “racists” and “not racists”. With this simplistic view of the problem, as long as people can reassure themselves that nobody is being actively racist, then all is well. But there are deeper levels to racism. It can be institutional, where people of color receive an inferior level of service or care. When dealing with institutional racism, there may not be any one specific event or person that can be identified as the problem. The difference in how people are treated is buried away in processes and systems – “racism without racists” as it is sometimes described.
Zambia clearly demonstrates this injustice of climate change. Average carbon footprints in Zambia are very low, coming in at just 0.36 tonnes per person per year – less than one-tenth of the UK average. Nevertheless, the country is facing environmental disaster, including a prolonged drought which left over a million people in need of food assistance in 2021.
“Zambia has been experiencing the negative impact of climate variability and change for the last three decades,” says Zambian climate scientist Mulako Kabisa. “The biggest impact has been increased temperature and reduced rainfall, resulting in climate shocks that include droughts and floods.”
These changes in rainfall and temperature have resulted in crop failure, livestock deaths and reduced the country’s GDP, she adds. “Droughts in particular have led to livelihood loss for the smallholder-dominated agricultural sector, because production is dependent on availability of adequate rain.”
While specific events are often tricky to attribute directly to climate change, the IPCC has observed all these impacts in Southern Africa already. Worse is likely to come. “Local evidence and simulated projections all indicate that rainfall will be more variable,” says Kabisa. “The production season will shift and drought incidents will be more frequent.”
These experiences of climate breakdown generally don’t make the news. In an overview of the most under-reported humanitarian crises of 2021, Zambia came in at number one.
This exclusion extends to international negotiations, where Mulenga says her country has been marginalised. “African voices are not well represented in climate summits, leaving climate justice out of the equation,” says Mulenga. “At COP26 a lack of vaccines and funding available for African countries prevented many delegates and activists from taking part in the negotiations, including myself. Racism and white supremacy have long excluded African voices from environmental policy.”
Future Planet contacted the UK’s COP26 team about these criticisms, but had received no response at the time of publishing.
The anthropologist Jason Hickel also makes this colonial connection. As part of his work on global inequality, he has studied responsibility for climate change between the Global North (the US, Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Israel and Japan) and the Global South (Latin America, Africa and Asia). “Our study calculated how much each nation has exceeded their fair share of the ‘safe’ planetary boundary for CO2 emissions,” he says. The results are “staggering”, he says: the study found the Global North is responsible for 92% of all excess global emissions, while the Global South is responsible for only 8%.
“The nations of the Global North have effectively colonized the atmospheric commons. They’ve enriched themselves as a result, but with devastating consequences for the rest of the world and for all of life on Earth.”
The European colonial powers, and the European settler colonies, are disproportionately responsible for causing excess emissions. Meanwhile, we know that the impacts of climate breakdown fall disproportionately on the Global South. Communities in the Global South have been hit twice over: first by colonisation, and now by climate breakdown.”
All these imbalances of power play into climate talks. Many parts of the temperate north are less exposed to the immediate dangers of climate change, but hold far greater economic and political power. The nations of the Global North have been able to shape climate policies around their national interests first. For example, the Paris Agreement agreed to limit warming to well below 2C, with 1.5C of warming as an ambition. It is disproportionately people of colour who will pay the difference for that extra half a degree. In this way, unambitious targets or protecting fossil fuel investments perpetuates racial injustice.
The response to demands from vulnerable countries for richer countries to take responsibility will determine whether climate change becomes a problem that unites or divides humanity. It may be a moment of shared purpose. Or history may come to know it as the next chapter in a long story of racial oppression, alongside slavery, colonialism and empire.
NASA climate scientist Dr. Peter Kalmus: ‘Race justice & climate justice are one & the same: Oppressive extractive plutocracies that colonize & kill black bodies & colonize & kill our planet are one & the same’