We Need to Shift The Climate Crisis Conversation

by Furqan Mohamed

As noble and important conversations surrounding "save the planet" and "go green" are, this crusade requires a deeper understanding of how the climate crisis is affecting and will affect those inhabiting it — particularly the most vulnerable.

It is an undeniable truth that communities everywhere are and will be affected by climate change, but those in impoverished, racialized, and rural communities will be undoubtedly facing the greatest repercussions. Just as every socio-political and socioeconomic issue, the climate crisis must be approached with an intersectional lens. Like it or not, greenhouse gas emissions and every other contribution to the steady death of our planet extends beyond an issue of environmental security, into an issue of climate justice. Climate justice necessitates that we in wealthy circumstances — with the wealthier among us — who have benefited the most from using fossil fuels, should do more to reduce greenhouse gasses and carbon emissions. Recognizing that climate change has excessively negative effects — the most on the poor and vulnerable — means it disturbingly hurts those who have done the least to contribute to the problem. Institutionalized racism already plagues our system, but it presents itself in more sinister ways in regards to this issue.

The University of Michigan's Center for Sustainable Systems reported last year that people of colour comprise 56 percent of the population living in neighbourhoods with toxic facilities, compared to 30 percent elsewhere. These toxic facilities are actually linked to gentrification, because the land value of poorer neighbourhoods is cheap, which attracts corporations to build their factories without care for who already resides there. And thanks to uneven distribution patterns, minority and low-income communities have considerably less access to green spaces than white, well-to-do communities do.

Income bracket and race are major factors in concluding whose lives will be impacted more negatively thanks to the growing disaster that is climate change. Studies conducted by Environmental Health News in 2012 found that in Arizona and Texas, elderly residents in low-income neighbourhoods were more likely to die from heat exposure. This study also showed that 68 percent of black Americans lived within 30 miles of a coal plant — we already know that coal is harmful to the health and quality of life for human beings. And terrifyingly, 1 in 6 black children in the U.S. has asthma, relative to the 1 in 12 children reported to have asthma in 2017 (Centre for Disease Control) — black kids suffer from asthma more than any other demographic of children, because of the proximity to pollution.

As early as 2002, the government of Canada was already aware of how climate change could affect First Nations people. The livelihood of many Aboriginal Canadians — especially those who reside in the Northern parts of the country — will see major changes in their way of life, because of their dependence on the land, water, and natural resources, which will be harmed by climate change. It will also compromise ecosystems, in large part due to wildfires and stronger winds. 

The world is increasingly at risk of “climate apartheid,” where those who have the means to leave disastrous areas (those affected by floods, crop shortages, wildfires, etc.) will relocate and keep resources to themselves. The rest of the world — the poorest and physically weakest of citizens — will be left to fend for themselves in the worst circumstances. Many will die, and many more will see a steep decline in their quality of life. 

Philip Aston, speaking to London-based publication the Guardian, gave us the most discerning illustration of why we should be talking about class when discussing climate change, when he gave an example using Hurricane Sandy. The hurricane "[stranded] low-income and vulnerable New Yorkers without access to power and healthcare, [and] the Goldman Sachs headquarters was protected by tens of thousands of its own sandbags and power from its generator.” 

Though natural disasters are a given, the climate crisis far exceeds them, and the results are even more disastrous for those already without any social capital or power. The recent floods in Bangladesh serve as a palpable example of this. The Scientific American in 2017 reported that a 3 foot rise in sea level would displace more than 30 million people in the country, along with submerging 20 percent of the land. It can and should be hard to welcome a climate change plan that prioritizes anything other than the lives of black and brown people In the west and abroad, whose economic conditions already put them at a disadvantage.

The solution to what is essentially environmental prejudice is not simple. The World Resources Institute proposes the concept of "environmental democracy" — an idea that is rooted in the notion that productive and meaningful public participation in solutions to coping with the crisis — is imperative. This participation ensures that all decisions made regarding natural resources and lands are made in the best interests of everyday people. There are three major rights that encompass environmental democracy — the ability for people to freely access information on environmental quality and problems, to always be at the table when decisions are made, to have environmental regulations enforced, and to be able to receive compensation for damages when these rules are violated. 

Mother Nature is colourblind, but unfortunately, people and their governments are not. Whether it's the placement of factories and mines in low-income black neighbourhoods that produce toxins, or a lack of acknowledgment of the intensified natural disasters hurting the more impoverished parts of our countries, one thing is clear — our response to the climate crisis must encompass a corrective justice, as anything less would compound oppression in an already cruel world.