climate change human rights social justice

Climate change is slow violence

Reading Dario Kenner‘s book Carbon Inequality recently, I was struck by the following observation:

“The impact of pollution, like climate change, is a gradual process meaning its fatal impact is not always visible. It could be described as slow violence because it is incremental, dispersed across time and space, and often not perceived as a type of violence.”

Climate change is ‘not perceived as a type of violence’, but should it be? We know the causes. From the pollution of the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, very real consequences flow. People lose their crops as rainfall patterns change, or lose their homes as seawater rises. Heatwaves take the lives of the frailest, and more powerful storms rip up the landscape. The destruction that climate change causes is often violent – the news will talk about the violence of a tropical storm – so why not the wider issue?

The language of violence shakes us out of the abstraction of ‘environmental issues’. If we recognised climate change as violence, we would be able to see more clearly that when we dig new coal, expand airports, or pull out of international treaties, we are committing a violent act.

Or is it too painful to draw a connection between driving, flying and consuming on the one hand, and those tropical storms or rising seas on the other?

Slow violence isn’t a new idea. Rob Dixon wrote about it a few years ago in his book Slow violence and the environmentalism of the poor. He argues that environmental breakdown can occur slowly and invisibly, with a vast disconnect between cause and effect. But the ultimate result is still violence, against people and against nature:

“By slow violence I mean a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all. Violence is customarily conceived as an event or action that is immediate in time, explosive and spectacular in space, and as erupting into instant sensational visibility. We need, I believe, to engage a different kind of violence, a violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous, but rather incremental and accretive, its calamitous repercussions playing out across a range of temporal scales.”

That’s a powerful idea, made all the more shocking when you consider it alongside climate justice. Then the breakdown of the climate becomes an act of violence against the poor, against people of colour, and against future generations.

We may not want to think about it like that. It is easier not to, but history may not be so forgiving.


  1. A painful thing to have to reflect on!

    Pope Francis, in Laudato Si, wrote a little about violence. One quote being: “This sister [the earth] now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor.”


    *Jack Wakefield*UK Campaigns Associate 020 3906 3906 @TearfundAct

    *Our world has a rubbish problem* – and it’s hitting people living in poverty the hardest.

    We’re calling on *Coca-Cola, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever* to take responsibility for their plastic waste in poorer countries. Add your voice today .

    On Tue, 23 Jul 2019 at 13:01, The Earthbound Report wrote:

    > Jeremy Williams posted: “Reading Dario Kenner’s book Carbon Inequality > recently, I was struck by the following observation: “The impact of > pollution, like climate change, is a gradual process meaning its fatal > impact is not always visible. It could be described as slow violence ” >

  2. Thanks Jeremy, an excellent post. V good to meet you at the JIE workshop.

    Attached might be of interest in context of Slow Violence idea.

    best IAN Ian Christie Centre for Environment & Sustainability, University of Surrey +44 (0)1483 689612


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