By Olivia Oldham
Climate change and environmental degradation are not just environmental issues. Yes, we are pumping ever-more poisonous gasses into our atmosphere, fouling our rivers with deluges of chemicals, and dumping so much plastic into our oceans that soon, there will be more plastic than fish. And yes, the future of our climate at more than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures looks more than a little dicey, but the fact is that we are not all equally at risk. Climate change is a social justice issue, and it requires climate justice.
Spatial distribution of impacts
The spatial distribution of the negative effects of climate change--such as droughts, floods and extreme temperatures--will be uneven. In general, parts of the world which are already more vulnerable to shocks, due to factors such as poverty and relative disadvantage, are likely to be most severely affected. According to the IPCC, it is highly likely that the Arctic, global drylands, small island developing states and ‘Least Developed Countries’ in general will be at highest risk as the planet continues to heat.
Impacts in place
Beyond the regional variations and associated injustices related to the spatial distribution of the impacts of climate change, there is also variation and injustice in the way these changes and resulting weather events impact different people living in the same place. For example, Hurricane Katrina--the type of event which will become more frequent and more extreme as our planet heats up (regardless of whether the 2005 disaster itself was made more likely by climate change)--resulted in dramatically uneven and unjust outcomes for residents of New Orleans and the surrounding area.
The hurricane affected everyone--of course; storms ‘don’t discriminate’. But people do. Centuries of racially-motivated discriminatory land policies across the affected region have resulted in severely geographically segregated communities. In New Orleans itself, at the time of the disaster, African American communities disproportionately occupied low-lying land in areas prone to swamp-related flooding. This meant that communities of colour were more heavily impacted by the direct effects of the levee breaches.
After the storm, African American communities were left stranded in the ruined city for longer than other communities; majority-black neighbourhoods had poor access to transportation, due to decades of discriminatory city planning. Four days after the storm, 200 mainly African-American residents tried to walk out of the city along the highway, they were met by police and were driven back with guns and a police helicopter. Regardless of the immediate motivation for this act, it is clear that the natural disaster that was Katrina affected certain people far more severely than others. Not only that, but this disproportionate and unfair distribution of effects was systematic and calculable, based on intertwined questions of race and class. In many ways, then, it can be argued that the disastrous element of the hurricane was not at all natural, but rather socially constructed in that the negative impacts were largely the result of social policies and discrimination.
The litany of discriminatory impacts of Hurricane Katrina are too lengthy to be fully listed here, and the list of environmental disasters which have disproportionately affected people of colour and the socioeconomically vulnerable could fill an entire library. If you’re interested in learning more, check out this free online course on environmental justice.
It’s not just climate change itself
Beyond the uneven impacts of climate-related disasters, the industries and activities which are causing climate change are also causing significant racial and class-based injustice. For example, you might have heard about the ‘No DAPL’ movement that took place in North Dakota in 2016 and 2017, protesting a section of an oil pipeline leading from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to Patoka, Illinois. The point where the pipeline was to cross the river was moved from its original location, after it was decided by planners and engineers that a spill could have negative impacts on drinking water in the Missouri capital, Jefferson City. So, the crossing was moved to land stolen from the Standing Rock Sioux in 1958, within a kilometre from the present-day boundary of the Standing Rock Reservation. In this new location, the impacts of a spill would be the same as in the previous one--only here, they would only affect Indigenous people, rather than the majority white Jefferson City.
The peaceful protests of the water protectors--both local Standing Rock inhabitants and supporters from across the country and indeed around the world--were met with violent repression using counter-terrorism tactics. The pipeline eventually went ahead, leaking oil even before it became fully operational.
Again, this is not the only example of injustice perpetuated by those seeking to profit from the degradation of the environment and the continued emission of fossil fuels into the atmosphere. For example, back in April, Celine Barclay wrote a piece for the OCS blog on environmental ‘martyrs’--environmental activists, usually from and in the global South, frequently Indigenous, who have been murdered for resisting activities such as illegal logging, or the violation of land rights.
The fact is, climate change and other environmental damage do not affect us all equally: some people are disproportionately affected, usually based on their race and their class. We can trace these inequalities back to the era of colonisation and slavery, and the continuing practices of discrimination which exist to this day across the globe, as well as the exploitative nature of modern capitalism. Together, these legacies continue to enable the erasure of the suffering of the many so that a few might profit as the world crumbles.
We need to recognise that the climate crisis is also a crisis of justice, so that when we fight to change the world, the world we end up with is better for everyone, not just those of us privileged enough to sit at home writing about it on our laptops.
OCS Media Team
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