The climate emergency is a multiplier of disadvantage. If you’re marginalised in society for any reason, there’s a strong change that you face a greater risk from climate change. That includes people with disabilities and the elderly. Women face a variety of specific vulnerabilities, depending on where you are in the world. Class and caste differences will matter, and nomadic people groups face specific risks.
Perhaps the biggest difference in outcomes is the racial one, and the fact that the worst effects of climate change fall on people of colour, particularly in Africa and India. This is the subject of my forthcoming book – out in two days’ time – Climate Change is Racist.
One of the reasons that theses differences in outcome go unnoticed is that climate science, campaigning and policy making are all conducted within existing power structures. Inevitably, that brings certain perspectives to the fore, and privileges certain solutions.
We can see this, as I’ve described before, in the books about climate change. Writing a book is an established route into thought leadership, and the vast majority of books on climate change are written by white men like me. We write confident and commanding books with titles that set out How to Fix the World, How to Avoid Climate Disaster, or What We Have To Do Now.
That’s fine. I read those books too. But there are 7.9 billion people in the world and only one billion of those live in what is traditionally known as ‘the West’. While climate change originates in these places, it is not here that the battle will be won or lost. And it is not wealthy white men who will suffer most if we fail.
This is even more important in policy making, and we can see the influence of inequality in the way that climate change has been addressed up to now. Those insisting it is an emergency are those on the front lines in small island states or vulnerable African countries, but they do not hold the levers of power. And so targets are pushed back. Conferences are allowed to come and go with no progress made, for decades. Limiting warming to 1.5 degrees becomes an ambition, a stretch goal. Those who are made stateless and homeless in the difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees can only look on from the sidelines as their future is written off.
You could make similar points about climate science, where ethnic minorities are underpresented, and where whole regions of the world are under-studied. Again, this leaves certain perspectives out, and that leads to worse science as well as overlooked injustices. “Diverse people ask different questions and science is all about asking good questions,” says the director of earth science at NASA, which is working to improve diversity in its teams.
Finally, climate campaigning faces the same questions. The Green 2.0 project has been studying representation at the leadership level of environmental NGOs, and the results have not been pretty.
The first step to improving the situation is to be aware of it. If green organisations, universities, policy units and publishers know about the disparity, they can start to mitigate it. Is there anywhere in your circles of influence that you might need to raise the question?