“Racial justice is climate justice. That means police reform is climate policy.” Emily Atkin, a widely read climate journalist, wrote those words last week in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd.
Atkin is not alone in making a direct connection between climate change and racism. Numerous environmental leaders and prominent climate activists have issued statements condemning police violence and expressing solidarity with racial justice organizations.
And for some notable climate movement figures, the relationship between anti-racism and climate activism extends much further than pro forma solidarity.
Writing in The New Yorker, global climate leader Bill McKibben entitled his latest article, “Racism, Police Violence, and the Climate Are Not Separate Issues.” And a recent piece by Eric Holthaus, a highly regarded meteorologist who writes about climate change, proclaimed, “The climate crisis is racist. The answer is anti-racism.”
The position that these and other climate advocates are taking is much stronger than merely observing that the impacts of climate change take a higher toll on frontline populations — often composed of people of color — than on wealthier people whose lifestyles cause much more environmental damage. And their stance goes well beyond simply noting that urban neighborhoods predominantly inhabited by black and brown people often lack transportation options, tree canopy and open spaces that help to mitigate the hardships climate change causes.
The statement they’re making is bolder. They’re asserting that the movement for a transition to a decarbonized economy cannot succeed until there are structural changes in society to redress centuries of systemic racism.
The tight coupling of race and climate change seems incongruous at first glance. People commonly regard climate change as a problem to be worked out by scientists and engineers. The linkage between the degradation of global ecosystems and a profoundly moral social issue like racism is not immediately evident.
... the movement for a transition to a decarbonized economy cannot succeed until there are structural changes in society to redress centuries of systemic racism.
To wrap your head around the claim that confronting racism is essential to addressing the climate crisis, it’s crucial first to observe that efforts to slow down climate change proceed on multiple paths. Besides the formidable technical challenges, there are social, economic and political obstacles to overcome.
On the technology front, there is undeniable progress. The costs of solar and wind energy have dropped dramatically, and they have made deep inroads into markets formerly dominated by coal and natural gas. And there is encouraging work being done on electric vehicles, grid-scale battery storage, carbon sequestration and regenerative agriculture.
But while advances in emissions reduction and carbon-free energy production may be on a trajectory to meet the technological goals of this century, the entrenched complex of political and corporate power that evolved during past centuries is impeding the changes that are needed to dismantle the fossil fuel empires responsible for the climate crisis.
The United States has a deep history of reckless exploitation of natural resources — forests, topsoil, water, fish and game, minerals, coal, oil and natural gas — all of which have been extracted for quick economic gain without regard for the ecological and human consequences. The ransacking of the planet’s assets has been perpetrated through colonialism and expropriation at the expense of indigenous people and racial minorities.
Our economic system is designed to minimize labor costs and value the production of material goods over the health and well-being of workers. It relinquishes our economic destiny to an ostensibly free market that consistently underprices environmental impacts and channels too much of the wealth society generates to the few highest percentiles of the income spectrum.
Racism perpetuates this system.
Racism serves as a political wedge to divide the electorate, enabling the elite to hold onto power. It facilitates the exploitation of a class of underpaid labor. It imposes an economic burden on people of color that inhibits their ability to take action for social change. It stands in the way of bringing about a society centered on basic human dignity and environmental stewardship rather than maximizing economic growth and corporate profit.
So, is racism the root cause of climate change? No, but its pervasive presence in society is indispensable to the persistence of an extractive, exploitative and inequitable economic system. And that system is inherently incompatible with the ecological and egalitarian model we need to achieve a just transition to a fair, clean energy economy.
Buried in the news last week was a report that atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen to its highest level in the last three million years, despite the pandemic lockdown. It will take more than technological innovation to avert the worst-case scenarios of climate change. Racism and climate change both demand that we reconsider the social and economic legacies that our past has left us.