Climate Change Is Racist
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Climate Change Is Racist

Race, Privilege and the Struggle for Climate Justice

Jeremy Williams

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eBook - ePub

Climate Change Is Racist

Race, Privilege and the Struggle for Climate Justice

Jeremy Williams

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** LONGLISTED FOR THE JAMES CROPPER WAINWRIGHT PRIZE LONGLIST 2022 ** 'Really packs a punch' Aja Barber, author of Consumed: The Need for Collective Change: Colonialism, Climate Change, and Consumerism 'Will open the minds of even the most ardent denier of climate change and/or systemic racism. If there's one book that will help you to be an effective activist for climate justice, it's this one.' Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu, author of This is Why I Resist 'Accessible. Poignant. Challenging.' Nnimmo Bassey, environmentalist and author of To Cook a Continent: Destructive Extraction and the Climate Crisis in Africa When we talk about racism, we often mean personal prejudice or institutional biases. Climate change doesn't work that way. It is structurally racist, disproportionately caused by majority White people in majority White countries, with the damage unleashed overwhelmingly on people of colour. The climate crisis reflects and reinforces racial injustices.In this eye-opening book, writer and environmental activist Jeremy Williams takes us on a short, urgent journey across the globe - from Kenya to India, the USA to Australia - to understand how White privilege and climate change overlap. We'll look at the environmental facts, hear the experiences of the people most affected on our planet and learn from the activists leading the change. It's time for each of us to find our place in the global struggle for justice.

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1

Who causes climate change?

‘We are fast approaching the point where our interference in the planet’s great bio-geochemical cycles is threatening to endanger the Earth system itself … We must begin to take responsibility for our actions at a planetary scale. Nature no longer runs the Earth. We do.’1
That’s environmental writer Mark Lynas in his book The God Species, which describes how humans are now ‘both the creators and destroyers of life’. Finding ourselves with God-like powers, ‘we must use our technological mastery over nature to save the planet from ourselves’.
Or to pick another example, here is Stephen Emmott. His book 10 Billion is ‘about the unprecedented planetary emergency we’ve created … Earth is home to millions of species. Just one dominates it. Us.’2

Who are we?

As a reader in Britain, I know what the authors above are getting at. I read these words in my own copies of the books, in my armchair, in my house with its fridge and its boiler. I hear cars outside and planes taking off from Luton Airport a mile or so away. When I read Emmott saying that ‘we need to consume less’, I know those words are directed at me as a Western consumer. (Indeed, both writers do specify at some point in their respective books who they’re talking about.)
But let’s imagine reading from a different point of view.
I grew up in Madagascar. It was one of the poorest countries in the world in the 1980s and 90s, and unfortunately it still is. If I were reading these words as a typical Malagasy person, I’d be doing so in a house made of mud bricks and a tin roof. There would be no car outside and probably no fridge – less than a quarter of households have a reliable source of electricity.
Average annual electricity use in Madagascar, per person, is 78 kilowatt hours (kwh) per year. Most people don’t think in kilowatts, so let me put that into perspective. My fridge uses 1.5 kwh every 24 hours. I’m running the washing machine at the moment, which will use about 1.5 kwh, and I’ll use around the same again to make dinner. In the warmer months of the year, my household uses around 4.5 kwh a day. Which means that every fortnight or so, my family uses more electricity than the average Malagasy person uses in a year.
However, my consumption is low for Britain, and Britain’s consumption is low for a developed country. Let’s look at a variety of other countries, showing electricity use in kwh per capita per year:3
  • Canada – 14,612 kwh
  • Kuwait – 14,090 kwh
  • United States – 12,154 kwh
  • Australia – 9,502 kwh
  • Saudi Arabia – 9,407 kwh
  • Japan – 7,150 kwh
  • Germany – 6,306 kwh
  • China – 4,617 kwh
  • Britain – 4,496 kwh
  • Madagascar – 78 kwh
How would a Malagasy person respond to reading that ‘our interference’ is disrupting the climate and that ‘we need to take responsibility’?
There are only 27 countries with very high electricity use, of over 8,000 kwh a year. There are 30 or so countries with very low usage, below 150 kwh a year. Most countries sit somewhere in between, often at a level that could be met entirely with renewable energy and considered sustainable.
The top of the list is dominated by Northern European, North American and Middle Eastern countries, along with Australia and New Zealand. The bottom is almost entirely African countries. With the exception of oil-producing Middle Eastern countries where energy is cheap, there’s a distinct colour divide here. Even the majority White countries that rank lowest for electricity use, places such as Moldova or Kosovo, still use 25 times more than most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.
It isn’t correct to say that ‘we’ are overconsuming. ‘We’ are not using too much energy. Some people are overconsuming. And most of those people are White.

Unequal carbon footprints

The amount of land needed to keep a modern consumer supplied with energy and resources is considerably greater than our literal footprint. As one energy commentator described it, if the average American consumed all their energy as food, they would eat as much as an Apatosaurus.4 At 40 tonnes and 70 feet long, that’s a footprint of an entirely different kind.
Let’s broaden the scope from electricity to carbon, and consider the impact of these larger fossil footprints. Since energy use is the biggest component of carbon footprints, it is a similar picture: again we see a vast inequality between countries. Per capita carbon footprints in Madagascar are around 0.16 tonnes. The average Australian has a carbon footprint 100 times larger, at over seventeen tonnes of CO2 per year.5 So do citizens of the United States and Canada.
Many European countries come in at half that and could feel superior when comparing themselves to those across the Atlantic. But compared to footprints of those in Malawi or Rwanda, there is less to be smug about. China is also in this middle bracket.
As the map in the introduction showed, the world’s biggest carbon emitters – on a per capita basis – are clustered in the Northern Hemisphere and the Middle East. The lowest footprints are in Sub-Saharan Africa and small island states. The South Asian countries of India, Bangladesh and Pakistan also have footprints below two tonnes per person per year.
The most obvious inequality here is economic. The poorest countries of the world have the lowest footprints. The highest footprints are in the highly industrialised North, and among the well-oiled nations of the Middle East. But if we only look at emissions at this particular moment in time, we will miss the wider perspective.

Historic responsibility

Average individual carbon footprints today show a wide discrepancy in responsibility. That becomes more stark when we look back through time. Some places have had a greenhouse gas problem for longer than others. Britain, for example, was early to industrialise and was by far the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases for over a century. With its coal-powered factories supplying the world with manufactured goods, Britain was more or less unchallenged as the world’s biggest polluter from 1750 to 1900.
From that point on, the United States took over and remains the biggest total contributor to climate change today. At 399 billion tonnes of CO2 to China’s 200 billion, it is unlikely that China will catch up, despite the country’s rush into coal in the early years of the 21st century (see Figure 3).
Looking at the cumulative totals by continent, we see that Europe, including Russia and the former countries of the USSR, is responsible for a third of all global CO2 emissions.6
Figure 3. Who has contributed most to global CO2? Cumulative carbon emissions from 1751 to 2017.
Calculated by Our World in Data, based on data from the Global Carbon Project and Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center. Published under a Creative Commons Licence.
North America adds a further 29 per cent, Oceania a further 1.2 per cent. All of these continents have had a majority White population during the period since industrialisation, which is what we are considering here wi...

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