climate change

What is climate privilege?

To be privileged is to have a certain advantage in life, usually unquantifiable. Because it is inherent to who we are, it is often easier to spot privilege in other people than in ourselves. We take our own privileges for granted, see them as normal, and it can feel like an affront when someone points them out. The personal nature of privilege makes it a difficult topic to talk about.

It’s also a slippery subject because the advantages of privilege are intangible. As the psychologist John Amaechi puts it, “all privilege is actually more about the absence of inconvenience, the absence of an impediment or challenge, and as such when you have it, you really don’t notice it, but when it’s absent, it affects everything you do.”

To give an example, I am right-handed and the world is designed with people like me in mind by default. It is only because my sister is left-handed that I became aware that it isn’t like that for everyone. As a right-handed person I never need to worry about the ergonomics of everyday objects.

The absence of challenge is what privilege is all about. A financially privileged person won’t know what it’s like to be poor. A man does not know what it feels like to be discriminated against for being a woman. White privilege, a term which is so emotionally charged for some people, works the same way. Reni Eddo-Lodge summarises it as “an absence of the negative consequences of racism.”

I’ve read a fair bit about white privilege while researching my book on climate change and race, and in the meeting of those two topics I identify another form of privilege: climate privilege.

To be climate privileged is to be untroubled by climate change, to have no personal experience of its negative effects. Climate privilege is the luxury of thinking of climate change as something that happens elsewhere, perhaps in the future. Those with climate privilege can file it as an environmental problem, associating it with coral reefs, rainforests or polar bears.

Climate privilege is partly to do with geography. As a wealthy nation in Northern Europe, for example, Britain is one of the most climate privileged places on earth. Marek Kohn explored this ten years ago in his book Turned Out Nice. It is not that Britain will be left unscathed by the climate emergency – far from it – but that it is likely to be worse elsewhere. Britain will not be rendered uninhabitable and its citizens stateless, which remains a very real prospect for small island states or some of the world’s hottest and driest regions.

Climate privilege is also a matter of wealth. Dubai is very hot, but it also very rich. It can respond to a warmer world with more air conditioning. The same is true locally, with some areas able to afford flood defenses and others left to fend for themselves. And it’s true individually. Some can afford to adapt to climate change, and don’t experience it as a threat. The differences can be stark – when South Africans experienced acute water shortages in 2018, the richest were still irrigating their lawns from their private boreholes while fellow citizens queued with buckets in the street.

Just as white privilege might lead someone to dismiss or misunderstand calls for racial justice, climate privilege can cause people to underestimate the seriousness of the climate crisis. Just as white privilege can obscure complicity in racist social structures, climate privilege can blind people to their part in carbon economy. And since climate change disproportionately affects people of colour, there is a lot of overlap between white privilege and climate privilege.

Where people do not feel affected by climate change, there is no sense of urgency to do anything about it, and I think climate privilege lies at the heart of the problem of why the world’s most powerful have been so slow to respond adequately to the crisis.

Strangely enough, I hadn’t ever heard anyone use the term ‘climate privilege’, and I went looking for references to it. There’s an ethics paper by Cynthia Moe-Lobeda that used the term in 2016, and an article using the term differently, to highlight how protesting about climate change is a privilege. Otherwise I can only find passing mentions or academic references. So I don’t think I’ve just missed it – it doesn’t seem to be in active use.

As the effects of climate change are already being felt, the crisis is no longer theoretical. Complacency is deadly, and I think it’s time to start talking a whole lot more about climate privilege.

14 comments

  1. Thanks so much for this, which to me crystallises important things I’ve been starting to be dimly aware of: this brings it out really clearly. If the rest of your book has stuff like this it’s going to be a really brilliant thing ! 🙂

  2. I think climate privilege lies at the heart of the problem of why the world’s most powerful have been so slow to respond adequately to the crisis.

    But is that true? If responding to the crisis means reducing GHG emissions, the EU that benefits from both white privilege and climate privilege, that’s relatively wealthy and includes ‘some of the world’s most powerful’, has nonetheless reduced its emissions by 20% since 1990. In contrast, the rest of the world has increased its by 90%. And some of the biggest contributors to that increase – e.g. China, India, Indonesia, Brazil and Mexico – enjoy neither white privilege nor climate privilege.

    1. It doesn’t divide neatly along national lines. It’s about where power lies. Most politicians are drawn from local elites, and would have a degree of climate privilege. See the example from South Africa above.

      1. It doesn’t divide neatly along national lines. It’s about where power lies.

        Doubtless that’s a major part of the problem. And yes, South Africa is an interesting example. However it’s also interesting that its per capita emissions are nearly 50 percent greater than the UK’s and 70 percent greater than the global average – surely that’s not due entirely to those who can afford private boreholes? India is an even more interesting example. As I’ve pointed out to you elsewhere on this blog, of its population of 1.3 billion about 80 million are wealthy by Western European standards. Some are very wealthy by any standards, and therefore have a big carbon footprint. Yet this is completely hidden because they live in a country with millions of desperately poor people – India’s average per capita emissions are 60 percent less than the global average.

        So I agree about the importance of powerful elites – China is another major example. But my point still stands: Western Europe, despite ‘benefiting’ from both white privilege and climate privilege and containing some very wealthy and powerful people, has taken real action to reduce its GHG emissions. In contrast, South Africa, India and China have not. Yet they ‘benefit’ from neither white nor climate privilege.

        1. Depends on your definition of ‘real’ action. Is Western Europe taking real action? Especially if you calculate emissions displaced to emerging economies countries through globalisation?

          And are India, China and South Africa not taking ‘real’ action? We might not be able to see the results yet in a downward emissions curve, but I’m not convinced it’s as black and white, West vs Rest as you usually insist. But since we’ve argued about that a dozen times already, I won’t get into it again.

          1. OK – I’ll rephrase my comment:

            You said: ‘climate privilege lies at the heart of the problem of why the world’s most powerful have been so slow to respond adequately to the crisis.’

            But is that true? If responding to the crisis means reducing GHG emissions, the EU that ‘benefits’ from both white privilege and climate privilege, that’s relatively wealthy and includes ‘some of the world’s most powerful’, has – according to accepted data bases – nonetheless reduced its GHG emissions. In contrast, South Africa, India and China have not. Yet they ‘benefit’ from neither white nor climate privilege. I suggest that it’s not so much white or climate privilege that’s ‘at the heart of the problem’ but – at least to some extent – it may be the existence of powerful elites within these three countries – as you noted with reference to South Africa. However, in my view, a principal reason is that they see the alleviation of poverty as taking precedence over GHG reduction.

  3. Jeremy,
    I suppose the Western history of racism has given the world a lens to see all our favorite causes (climate in this instance). Of late, it makes me realize that we continue to attach our own interest rather than consider staying focused on the immediate problem — owning and righting the tragic consequence of racial human exploitation. You have written of this in so many compassionate ways and climate privilege certainly fits that willful ignorance. The harms extend to generations yet and addressing racism in our time seems necessary to avert even more unimaginable harm.
    Steve

  4. I fully agree with the substance of everything you say on this, but object to your (and many other people’s) misuse of the word “privilege”. It is not a privilege to be free from unfair discriminations (whatever its basis), but a basic human right that everyone should share. The same applies to suffering the consequences of global warming, which must be not only stopped but reversed to take us back in that sense to where we were a few years ago.

    1. I agree that to be free from discrimination is a basic right that everyone should share, but I am only using the dictionary definition of privilege: “a special right or advantage that only one person or group has.” It doesn’t mean that the advantage is a good thing.

      The word ‘privilege’ is often used as a positive or in the context of a reward, so I can understand how it might look like a misuse the way I’ve used it, but I’m fairly confident I’m using it correctly. A word with more than one set of connotations, I guess.

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