Internationales Zentrum für Ethik in den Wissenschaften (IZEW)

Understanding the racial violence of climate change

by Jeremy Williams

25.04.2022 · In popular discourse, climate change is usually framed as an ‘environmental issue’ – a matter of ‘saving the planet’ or caring for nature. It is also about people, about justice, and about power. And when we pause to look at who is most affected, there is a clear racial dimension. Climate change can be understood as violence against people of colour, and seeing it in that way gives a new urgency to climate action.  

Awareness of climate justice is improving, with growing recognition that the issue is bigger than the environment. It is increasingly common to hear that poorer countries suffer more from climate change, despite contributing less to global emissions. Awareness of other forms of climate injustice may be increasing too, with more attention on the inter-generational aspects of climate change, or the effect across gender.  

The racial dimension of climate change, however, is less understood. To take the British public as an example, a poll in 2020 asked people which ethnic groups were most vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change. 31% of respondents said that white people were most affected. A further 28% said that there was no difference and that all ethnic groups would be affected equally.  

This is of course not the case. A map of climate vulnerability, as measured by Notre Dame University, shows that the worst impacts of climate change will fall on the black and brown populations of Africa and Asia. 

“Black communities are disproportionately located in areas that are physically vulnerable to climate impacts,” as Zambian activist Veronica Mulenga told me. “Historical and present-day injustices have both left BIPOC (Black, Indigenous & People of Colour) communities exposed to far greater environmental health hazards than white communities.” 

These hazards include greater exposure to deadly heat and drought. Projections of climate-related crop failures show serious threat to food supplies in central Africa and India, places where food security is already a problem. 

At the worst end of the scale, a recent study by Xu et al looked at regions of the earth that could become uninhabitable by 2070. They suggest that 19% of the earth’s surface could be too hot and dry to support agriculture and therefore settled civilisation. All of this area is in the equatorial region. Under a business-as-usual scenario, 3.5 billion people would see their land become uninhabitable. Of that vast number, only one majority white city would be at risk – Darwin in Northern Australia. All the rest would be people of colour.   

This is the racial injustice of climate change: not that the climate crisis discriminates against people on the basis of race, but that people of colour live in the places most affected, while causing very few of the emissions that drive the harm. The physical processes of climate change are not and cannot be racist, but they are unfolding in a world that is racially divided, compounding and entrenching those injustices. As the moral philosopher Elizabeth Cripps puts it in her book What Climate Justice Means: “The sea doesn’t choose its victims, but existing patterns of oppression and exploitation put some people in the way of the rising tide.”  

These patterns of harm do not come out of nowhere. They reflect existing global power structures, in which wealth is extracted from the global south and flows to the global north. (And things the global north doesn’t want – from waste electronics to surplus clothing to scrap plastic – flow the other way.) These extractive relationships echo colonial power dynamics, and they have endured despite formal political independence. As the pan-African scholar Walter Rodney wrote in his 1972 book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, “so long as foreigners own land, mines, factories, banks, insurance companies, means of transportation, newspapers, power stations, then for so long will the wealth of Africa flow outwards.” 

Echoing empire, majority white countries are still the richest, still hold the most power, and are still taking what they need from majority black and brown countries. The injustice has shifted from taking people during the slave trade, to land and resources under colonialism, and now to taking the atmosphere.  

Colonialism, and slavery before it, were openly racist processes. Empires told themselves that they were bringing civilisation, education and religion, and they justified the extraction of wealth from the south. Today many resist talk of racism in global politics, and yet the power dynamics are the same. The underlying structural racism that we see in colonialism has carried through into climate change.  

The inequalities of climate change are creating an emerging ethical imperative, alongside existing arguments for action such as environmental stewardship and care for nature. Reducing emissions and protecting nature is not enough. There must be positive action to counter the injustices of the climate crisis. One of the most obvious ways to redress this is through compensation for the damage caused by climate breakdown. This is formalised in the Loss and Damage stream of the UN talks, recognising that helping people to adapt is only part of the biggest emitters’ responsibility. For some it is already too late. The damage is done, and compensation is owed. However, progress on loss and damage is slow. Admitting that compensation is owed means accepting liability, and the world’s most powerful countries are wary of opening themselves up to litigation. At the COP26 talks in Glasgow, only Scotland and the region of Wallonia were prepared to put money on the table for loss and damage.  

As well as compensation, another emerging ethical thread is that of suffering. The climate journalist Emily Atkin teaches a course on climate reporting, and her most important piece of advice is the following: “If you take one thing from this class, please, let it be this. If we don’t take drastic action to address climate change, a lot of people are going to suffer. If we don’t take drastic action to address climate change, a lot of people are going to die. When you are reporting on anything having to do with climate change, I need this to be in the back of your mind all the time.” 

As she says, nobody would report on a conflict, or on a pandemic, without reference to human suffering. Climate should be the same and talking about it as a matter of suffering brings a different moral imperative than talking about ‘saving the planet’ or keeping within numerical targets for temperature or emissions. These are abstract and disconnected from the way that climate change is experienced on the ground – primarily by people of colour. Reducing suffering, protecting others from harm, is one of the most basic moral principles. 

On a related point, climate change can not only be described in terms of suffering, but also as violence. This is unfamiliar language in climate circles, but it draws attention to the fact that it is the actions of some people that harm others. This is unintentional and indirect, says ethicist Kevin J O’Brien in his book The Violence of Climate Change: Lessons of Resistance From Nonviolent Activists, “but it is nevertheless violence—a selfish expression of power that harms others.” The climate crisis has been “created by generations of decisions from privileged people who seek to make themselves safe and comfortable, who contribute disproportionately to the problem of climate change while tending to avoid its worst effects.” Given that those privileged people are mainly white, and those suffering its effects are mainly people of colour, climate change can be seen as a form of racialised violence.  

In conclusion, the harmful effects of climate change divide along racial lines and are reinforcing historic injustices for a new generation. This perspective is often lost in discussions of climate justice that are mainly concerned with economic inequality. Talking about climate change in terms of suffering, and even of violence, can clarify the moral imperative to act on climate justice. And as we look for meaningful actions, compensation for the loss and damage of climate disaster is a natural place to start.  

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Jeremy Williams is a writer and campaigner for environmental and social justice, author of Climate Change is Racist: Race, Privilege and the Struggle for Climate Justice. He writes The Earthbound Report (Britain’s leading green blog) and has a side-line as a children’s author. He grew up in Madagascar and now lives in Luton, UK.