The Inequality of Climate Change
Why achieving environmental justice is a key part of dealing with climate change
Posted Sep 15, 2019
Unlike in the last election season, climate change has been a centerpiece of the Democratic debates in the lead-up to the 2020 Presidential election. Even as this issue is finally receiving (belated) political attention, we can see and feel the disastrous effects of climate change all around us.
In a repeat of the summer of 2017, two weeks ago we saw a catastrophic hurricane devastate a Caribbean nation, the Bahamas, and found that just as people on the islands are trying to put their lives back together, another tropical storm was headed their way.
As with each of these weather events, the media in America predominantly focuses on if and when the storm will hit mainland USA (as it was for Hurricanes Irma and Maria), and serious attention fails to be given to U.S. territories like Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, let alone our international neighbors, even as they are dealing with the destruction of their homes.
This “us”-focused attention span runs the risk of narrowing our vision, ignoring the fact that the consequences of catastrophic climate change follow the paths of human injustice and inequality: It is those who have contributed least to the problem who have been and will be affected first.
Small Island Developing States (SIDS), in the parlance of the UN, and those in the global south are likely to suffer disproportionately from the catastrophic weather, the plagues and pandemics, and the food and water shortages that the industrialized world has set into motion for all of the planet. As David Wallace-Wells writes in “The Uninhabitable Earth,” his terrifying account of the very near future:
“This is what is often called the problem of environmental justice: a sharper, less gauzy phrase would be “climate caste system.” The problem is acute within countries, even wealthy ones, where the poorest are those who live in the marshes, the swamps, the floodplains, the inadequately irrigated places with the most vulnerable infrastructure—altogether an unwitting environmental apartheid… The cleavage is even sharper globally, where the poorest countries will suffer more in our hot new world... That is notwithstanding the fact that much of the global south has not, to this point, defiled the atmosphere of the planet all that much. This is one of the many historical ironies of climate change that would be better be called cruelties, so merciless is the suffering they will inflict.” (2019, p. 23-24).
Already, climate refugees (those who must escape their homelands due to its destruction) are a reality, from the people of the sinking Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana to those from the Sahel belt who have been displaced by desertification. For the growing number of climate change refugees, which could ultimately be up to 1.5 billion people by 2050, we will need to radically reconsider not just our approach to the environment but also our understanding of what it means to be a refugee and the treatment of those seeking shelter after a catastrophe.
The risk is that the emergency of climate change will reflect and magnify existing injustices and systemic racism towards people of color (as we have already seen this week with the fate of 12-year-old Kaytora Paul who, as a climate change refugee, was the victim of racist and cruel family separation policies at the U/S. border).
Environmental justice requires a multi-pronged and broad approach: from fixing our border policies and procedures to expanding the legal protections and categories available to refugees and asylum seekers to include those displaced by climate change, to challenging and resisting systemic racism and the oppression of historically marginalized groups.
Environmental justice activists know well that climate change is an intersectional and systemic problem, in which race and class are inextricably bound. As Black Lives Matter writes:
“The same system which props up the violent policing of our children on the streets is responsible for allowing dangerous toxins to be emitted in our backyards… As long as black and poor people are seen as disposable bodies, not worthy of the care afforded to other citizens, then we will be there, making noise, taking space, and saying it loud and clear: climate change is a racist crisis” (Cullers and Nguvu, 2017).
The American Psychological Association (APA) has also recognized the disproportionate impact of climate change on underprivileged and marginalized groups. In the APA’s 2011 Resolution on Affirming Psychologists’ Role in Addressing Global Climate Change, the APA reaffirms its recognition of climate change and its support of psychologists’ commitment to researching and mitigating climate change, particularly given its impact on populations already experiencing discrimination.
We live in a world in which we struggle to recognize and confront racial and social injustice properly, and in which we are still dealing with the violent structures and aftermath of colonialism, imperialism, and slavery, all of which were purposefully built on a foundation of inequality and injustice. Climate change, the single greatest and most urgent threat to all human life (an event that has, as Wallace-Wells writes, already ended “the normal”), is a crisis in which these inequalities and injustices are not only reflected but deepened and intensified. It requires us to put social justice at the forefront of our efforts to mitigate it.
From the perspective of psychology, this is especially important: those who have historically been burdened by trauma as a result of systemic injustice will now be the first to experience the trauma of displacement, catastrophic events, and environmental instability, and to experience it most extremely. In prioritizing social justice and in recognizing this trauma, we must put our resources towards not only preventing further environmental degradation but also supporting those who are likely to be the first victims of the threat to our planet.
Bailey, P. (2017, Oct. 6). Has American Forgotten the Virgin Islands? The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/11/opinion/america-forgotten-virgin-islands.html
Cullors, P. & Nguvu, N. (2017, September 14). From Africa to the US to Haiti, climate change is a race issue. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/sep/14/africa-us-haiti-climate-change-black-lives-matter
Madan, M.O. (2019, September 10). 12-year-old Bahamian girl separated from parents, ends up in Miami home for migrant kids. Miami Herald. Retrieved from https://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/immigration/article234933792.html
Ramirez, I. (2019, September 12). Climate change will create 1.5 billion migrants by 2050 and we have no idea where they’ll go. Vice. Retrieved from https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/59n9qa/climate-change-will-create-15-billion-migrants-by-2050-and-we-have-no-idea-where-theyll-go
Resolution on Affirming Psychologists’ Role in Addressing Global Climate Change (n.d.) Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/about/policy/climate-change
Thomas, A. (2013, August 2). Sahel villagers fleeing climate change must not be ignored. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2013/aug/02/sahel-climate-change-displacement-migration
Van Houten, C. (2016, May 25). The first official climate refugees in the U.S. race against time. National Geographic. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2016/05/160525-isle-de-jean-charles-louisiana-sinking-climate-change-refugees/
Wallace-Wells, D. (2019). The uninhabitable earth: Life after warming. New York: Tim Duggan Books.