climate change race social justice

Who gets to escape climate disaster?

Here’s a new ad that premiered today. It’s a satirical tourist ad for Mars, brought to you by Fridays for the Future.

It’s only the reveal at the end that brings the ad back to earth and highlights its climate justice message. The prospect of escaping climate change is only for the richest. For everyone else, we’d better fix the climate.

Fridays for the Future are not the first to highlight the waste of space exploration when there is so much to do on earth. “No hot water, no toilets, no lights, but Whitey’s on the moon” goes Gil Scott-Heron’s famous poem, showing how hollow the Apollo missions rang in some quarters.

This is more a matter of priorities than of zero-sum choices. America could have solved social problems and also gone to the moon. The scientific and technological legacy of those missions have brought benefits to billions of people, so it’s not as if they should not have happened. The injustice is in the fact that the big projects for the rich and powerful get funded, and the basic dignity of running water and sanitation doesn’t.

Scott-Heron pointed out in the 1960s that there was a racial inequality at work. Despite NASA’s promise to include women and people of colour the next time it goes to the moon, that’s no less true today. Globally, those still waiting for basic amenities are disproportionately black and brown. It is those same people who will be most affected by climate change.

It stands to reason that global warming will be most dangerous where it is already very hot. The equatorial regions of the Earth face greater risk. (Here’s the Climate Vulnerability Index map with the equator hastily drawn on it to make the point.) The majority white nations of the global north, despite being the biggest historical source of emissions, face much lower risk.

This is, ultimately, a much bigger deal than Mars. The rich don’t need to go to another planet to dodge the worst of climate change. It doesn’t have to involve a bunker or a private island, or a sea wall protecting your denialist ass from rising seas, as a certain US senator has. For most, escaping climate change just means living in a safe country in the first place.

I like the ad from Fridays for the Future, and it makes its point. But the big injustice of climate change is not a speculative future divide between those who can afford to go to space and those who can’t. It’s already with us – a global disconnect between those who have caused climate change and those who suffer its worst effects.


  1. But, basically the Revolution Will Be Televised and Trump Will Be Televised and hopefully People will see The Truth πŸ™πŸ¦„πŸŒ³πŸ™ŒπŸ’š

  2. There is justification for questioning space exploration when far too many people are going hungry and are denied basic needs on Earth, the inequality is a disgrace to say the least.
    One thing though, weapons, war and the sickening amount of money spent on those killing machines. Again it’s the poorer countries who are the victims.
    Weapons of war designed to maim, and murder are the scourge of the human race.
    There is sadly no chance of the rich and powerful dismantling those and using money to solve the terrible inequalities in the world.
    With regard to space exploration, the race is on to find minerals etc, to mine the moon. It’s about greed and money, and power. Who knows where humans will end up, but they have much to feel ashamed of so far.

    1. You’re right that they should be questioned. Space is an iconic example of inequality because the benefits are so intangible and it looks like the spending isn’t even on this planet! However, the problem isn’t the space exploration itself, but the priorities. Nobody is poor because there isn’t enough money to go round and it’s all been spent on space. We know that because if global space programmes were cancelled, it wouldn’t free up money for hunger and basic needs – those in power could just use it on something else, like new aircraft carriers or high speed rail connections.

      So I think it’s important to keep the focus on the real source of the problem. The problem isn’t that people want to go to space. The problem is that the poorest are powerless and so their needs are not prioritised.

  3. The Covid 19 pandemic could be considered as a BIG ACUTE crisis; the climate emergency should be considered a MASSIVE CHRONIC crisis. Taiwan, acting unilaterally, managed to limit the damage of Covid 19; but it will not be able to manage the climate emergency alone. Time for a World Parliament to co-ordinate?

  4. That’s a useful distinction, thanks. I’ll bear those categories in mind in future.

    And yes, a world parliament could co-ordinate if it existed – but starting from where we are, can it be established in time to make a difference?

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