books climate change race

Available now: Climate Change is Racist

It’s publication day for Climate Change is Racist: Race, Privilege and the Struggle for Climate Justice.

The book is published by Icon Books and it’s available from today in the UK (and in a couple of months in the US and elsewhere), and if it isn’t in your local bookshop, ask them why not.

I only signed the contract for the book in January, so Icon have done a remarkable job in turning this around and getting it out there in less than six months. We wanted the book to be accessible to everyone as soon as possible, so we’ve gone straight to paperback and ebook, and with an audiobook version to follow soon.

There’s lots more about the book and its message here, and the people who have inspired it here, so let me share a bit more of a personal perspective on how it came to be.

Climate Change is Racist is, first and foremost, a book I wanted to read more than a book I wanted to write. I wanted to know more about how climate change intersected with racism, and I couldn’t find a book that provided the kind of global overview I was looking for. There were articles and interviews online, but nothing longer. Those books that did deal with the subject were based in specific incidents, particularly Hurricane Katrina, and were more about local injustices than global ones. The book I was after did not exist, and it occurred to me that maybe I ought to write it myself.

There were many reasons why I didn’t want to do that. My expertise, such as it is, is in sustainability and not in race. I didn’t know enough, and it was well outside my comfort zone. I knew it would be difficult, and that there are sensitivities in writing about race that I didn’t want to get wrong. It can also be controversial, and the book would inevitably get strong reactions. I didn’t necessarily want to get involved. Perhaps most importantly, I wasn’t sure the book was mine to write. I thought it would be better coming from a writer of colour.

I changed my mind of course. I came to realise that the freedom to duck the race debate is the epitome of white privilege. And if climate change is racist, it’s white people who have the work to do. I have to take responsibility for that, and so it absolutely is my book to write. Most of all, if climate change really was racially charged in the way I had come to understand, then it was far too important to keep quiet about. I couldn’t not write about it.

Helpfully, I also came to see that I have something unique to offer. As a British writer with roots in Madagascar and Kenya, I wasn’t going to come at the topic the same way as anyone else. The conversation about climate and race is dominated by American commentators who I respect and admire and who feature in the book – but the American race story is not universal. I wanted to feature a truly international range of examples, with lots of African voices, and produce something that would complement the work of others and not compete with it.

Finally, I decided to write a short book – something that was making no attempt to be comprehensive or to have the final word. It is full of the work of others, people I have been inspired by and who are much closer to the solutions than I am. It aims to raise some questions, and provoke discussion rather than offer easy answers.

Fundamentally, the connection between climate change and race is a conversation that we need to have. This is my part in that conversation, and for all the years of thinking about this it really begins today, with publication. If you want me to write something for your publication, I can do that. If you want me to come and talk to your organisation, class, church, or podcast, let’s set something up. Whether you agree or disagree with me, let’s talk about climate and race.

24 comments

  1. A fundamental objection to this book is that, as a non-human phenomenon, it’s impossible for climate change to be ‘racist’ – something that requires human agency. Another major problem is that it ignores the fact that, because of the economic advantages made possible by the Industrial Revolution, all countries – not least non-White countries – have benefitted enormously in terms of poverty reduction, life expectancy, healthcare, education, etc.

    But I’ll confine myself to one issue – the allegation that White people are responsible for emissions and therefore for their consequences – where I believe the book is dangerously misleading.

    It may be legitimate to criticise or even to dislike White people because of their past exploitation of non-White people via colonialism, empire, violence, slavery, injustice etc. But the book risks exacerbating that dislike by claiming that White countries, countries that, as it puts it, have inherited ‘a White supremacist legacy that reaches deep into the past through slavery, empire and neo-colonialism’ (referred to below as ‘White legatee countries’) are predominantly responsible for increased greenhouse gas emissions. And that, it says, makes them responsible for their predicted disastrous consequences – consequences that will affect non-White more than White people.

    But the evidence demonstrates that White legatee countries are not predominantly responsible for increased greenhouse gas emissions:

    1. The detailed Our World in Data chart (https://ourworldindata.org/contributed-most-global-co2) referred to in Chapter 1 shows that the US, Canada, W Europe and Oceania (i.e. the White legatee countries) were the source of 50% of cumulative emissions from 1751 to 2017 – i.e. they were not predominantly responsible for them. And, in any case, some of the 35 countries in that group, e.g. Czechia, Poland and Romania, cannot properly be classified as White legatee countries.

    2. This chart (https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/02_figure_TS.2.png) published by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows that, from 1750 to 2010, the OECD (which includes all the White legatee countries) was the source of less than 50% of cumulative emissions. And note that, since 2010, in contrast to OECD emissions, non-OECD emissions have increased substantially: https://edgar.jrc.ec.europa.eu/report_2020.

    3. This study (https://unfccc.int/files/methods/other_methodological_issues/application/pdf/match_summary_report_.pdf), carried out in 2008 for SBSTA (a subsidiary body of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of the Parties) concluded that greenhouse gas emissions from White legatee countries caused significantly less than half of global warming up to 2000 – see the pie chart. And note that, since 2000, these countries’ emissions have decreased whereas those of the rest of the world have increased massively: see the reference at item 2 above.

    4. This chart (https://ieep.eu/news/more-than-half-of-all-co2-emissions-since-1751-emitted-in-the-last-30-years) shows that more than half of all CO2 since 1751 was emitted in the last 30 years, a period when, as noted above, emissions from non-White countries increased massively. This is significant because it was around 1990 that the claimed impact of emissions on climate change first became widely known – those responsible for the emission of greenhouse gases from the Industrial Revolution until then were largely unaware of that impact.

    Over the last 20 years or so politicians and scientists in White countries – mostly white older men – have been at the forefront of major efforts to persuade the world that greenhouse gas emissions must be cut urgently and substantially if humanity is to avoid disaster. But they’ve failed to make any headway. And that’s because developing countries have adamantly refused to comply – often for good reason such as a determination to eradicate poverty. Yet these latter countries, the source of the preponderance of emissions since 1990 (see reference above), all comprise people of colour. In other words, what’s been happening over all these years is the opposite of a White-caused ‘racial injustice’.

    Associated with the above is the book’s observation that ‘when action is delayed or targets weakened it is the world’s Black and Brown population that will suffer greater harm. Weak climate targets are racist policies’. That may be true – but it’s not White countries that are delaying action or weakening targets. Far from it.

    The evidence is clear: White legatee countries are not predominantly responsible for increased greenhouse gas emissions. To assert otherwise – and especially, as the book does, to state that therefore we may be ‘at the early stage of an epic racial atrocity’ – is I believe seriously irresponsible. By falsely suggesting that the actions of White people have made non-White people the victims of climate change, the book can only exacerbate already fragile inter-race relations.

    Robin Guenier

  2. Your reaction to the book is exactly what I expected it would be after a decade of your commenting, but you’re ignoring the population factor here. The ‘legatee’ countries as you refer to them are approximately a billion people – a global minority with a disproportionately large impact.

    Did you tell Paul Homewood about the book, by the way? Or did he come across it himself? Just curious.

  3. Of course it’s true that there are many less people in these countries, where most people’s skin pigmentation is what’s generally described as ‘white’, than there are in countries where most people have a different skin pigmentation. My objection to your book is to its determination to exacerbate current divisions based on this pigmentation difference by its attempt to show that, whatever the evidence, people with ‘white’ skin are ‘really’ responsible for the increases in greenhouse emissions that we’re told (by people with ‘white’ skin) are likely to have dreadful consequences for in particular people with different skin pigmentation.

    I think that determination is irresponsible. It demonstrates an attitude that’s the opposite of what in my view is the key to harmony amongst differing peoples – something epitomised by Martin Luther King in 1983:

    ‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.’

    1. King isn’t suggesting that we ignore race, but that we heal racial injustice. My book is about the injustice of climate change, which you simply deny exists.

      And you haven’t answered my question. Did you tell Paul Homewood about my book?

      1. King was fighting the appalling injustices perpetrated against black people in the US. But his message – his ‘dream’ – was that people should be judged by their character, not the colour of their skin. You seem determined to do the opposite. I find that irresponsible.

        There are many fewer people in the world with ‘white’ skin pigmentation than there are with other pigmentation. Therefore, if climate change has the consequences many scientists fear, many more of the latter will be affected. I don’t for a moment deny that.

        As for Homewood, just as your book was published, comments were closed on this thread about ‘climate racism’: https://notalotofpeopleknowthat.wordpress.com/2021/05/26/global-heating-study-shows-impact-of-climate-racism-in-us-bbc/ . I sent him an email drawing his attention to this. He didn’t reply nor did he give me a credit for alerting him (his normal practice), so my guess is that probably several people told him about it. BTW you haven’t replied to my last comment on his current ‘racism’ thread.

        1. And my book is fighting the structural injustices perpetrated against black people by climate change. It doesn’t surprise me that you don’t recognise them. Millions do, and we will fight those injustices without you.

          Yes, I figured it was you that tipped him off, and I think it’s a pretty cynical thing to do. If people don’t recognise the reality of either racism or climate change, the book clearly isn’t for them. Whether it was your intention or not, you’ve invited a torrent of abuse in my direction.

          This isn’t the first time I’ve found you sneering at me in the comments section of a climate denial blog. That’s your prerogative, but don’t expect me to take your questions seriously here.

          1. No Jeremy, whether it’s intended to or not, your book is most unfortunately likely to exacerbate a sadly divisive anti-white attitude that helps no one. Here for example is an extract:

            Kehinde Andrews argues that ‘the primary logic underpinning the Western world order is that Black and Brown life is worth less’. Climate change is the biggest manifestation of this …

            If you really believe that, I’m sorry for you. And it’s hardly a comment that’s going to do anything to help people of any complexion deal with climate change. If increased emissions are indeed the problem, what you (and those millions) should be doing is finding a way of persuading the big ‘emerging’ economies (China, India, South Korea, Indonesia, etc.) to reverse their current energy policies – and to do so very soon. Western politicians and scientists (white people) have been trying vainly to persuade them for 20 years. And, as skin colour is so important to you, you’ll be aware of the fact that none of these emerging economies (comprising over 4 billion people) is white.

            There was nothing remotely cynical about my alerting Homewood to a newly published book that was directly relevant to a thread he’d literally just closed. And BTW I doubt if any of those commenting on his blog deny the reality of either racism or climate change. I certainly don’t. And I’ve never sneered at you in the comments section of any blog – I don’t sneer at people. You really need to get used to legitimate criticism. I’ve had to learn to do so. So can you.

          2. The comments on homewood’s blog are wall to wall climate and race denial, and whatever you say your views are, you seem very at home there. That’s fine, knock yourself out. Just don’t expect me to take you seriously here, or waste my time on your comments when you have so obviously picked a side.

          3. The comments on homewood’s blog are wall to wall climate and race denial

            If you really think that, you must have a comprehension deficiency. And I don’t think you do.

            Here are some basic facts. In its 2018 Special Report (https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/) (go to para C1), the IPCC stated that to achieve the ‘<i<guardrail’ 1.5ºC target, a ‘decline by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030’ was needed. In 2010, global emissions were 34 gigatonnes (Gt), so that means they’d have to come down to 19 Gt by 2030 to meet the target – a 50% reduction on 2019’s level (38 Gt): https://knoema.com/atlas/World/CO2-emissions. Yet just the 4 countries to which I refer above are already emitting 15.4 Gt (i.e. 81% of the IPCC’s target): https://edgar.jrc.ec.europa.eu/report_2020. And none of them shows any serious interest in reducing those emissions – quite the contrary. But, unless they do and do so soon, humanity will blow right through the IPCC’s target and the 1.5ºC ‘guardrail’.

            That’s the challenge you and your millions should be tackling if you’re really serious about helping people of any complexion deal with climate change – not wasting time pointlessly exacerbating current divisions based on skin pigmentation differences.

  4. As usual you and I read apparently different things from the same black and white words, which is why ‘discussion’ has always been impossible with you.

    I’m not going back to quote them, but you’ll find multiple comments on that thread insisting there is no such thing as structural racism, and telling me that to say otherwise is socialism in disguise. Mutiple comments insisting Africa should be grateful to the West for fossil fuels, and that it’s basically people like me who are the racists for denying them to Africa. These comments seem to be mysteriously invisible to you.

    It would be impossible to discuss bread recipes with someone who denies that there is any such thing as bread. And it is impossible to intelligently discuss climate change and race with an online community which doesn’t agree on the very basic tenets of climate science and structural racism.

    I don’t need people to agree with me, but it’s not too much to expect people to listen. You don’t, and I will focus my energies on more productive conversations.

    1. It’s true that commentators on Homewood’s blog disagree with you and many criticise you. But that’s not the same as ‘wall to wall climate and race denial’. Far from it.

      And yes, I listen. I bought your book and read it carefully from cover to cover. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it because of its irresponsible and pointless determination to exacerbate increasingly ugly current divisions based on differences in skin pigmentation. Your approval of the Kehinde Andrews comment (see above) is a good example of this. Here’s another – a comment by Ibram X. Kendi that you quote approvingly:

      ‘Do-nothing climate policy is racist policy, since the predominantly non-White global South is being victimised by climate change more than the Whiter global North, even as the Whiter global North is contributing more to its acceleration.’

      Yet you’re well aware that the ‘Whiter global North’ is not doing nothing and that it’s India, China and Southeast Asia that’s ‘contributing more to its acceleration’. Your approval is irresponsible.

      1. Accusing me of wanting to inflame racial tensions is a very serious accusation. If you saw a “determination to exacerbate increasingly ugly current divisions”, then you didn’t read it carefully and you’re proving my point that you don’t listen.

        So move along now and stop wasing my time.

        1. I was disappointed to come to that conclusion: you and I have had disagreements in the past (many of them!), but I’ve always found you reasonable – someone with whom an exchange of views could even be enjoyable. In the book however you adopt a new and unfortunate position – illustrated by the two comments I cite above. Here’s another:

          If it’s true that climate change is predominantly caused by White people, and disproportionately suffered by people of colour, then we are in the early stages of an epic racial atrocity, one that will echo through world history for centuries to come.

          ‘an epic racial atrocity’. ‘will echo through world history’. Do you really think such words can do anything but exacerbate already fragile race relations?

          1. Yes, I noted it. And your book contains multiple examples of your having no doubt that ‘climate change is predominantly caused by White people‘. Two examples:

            … it is generally true that when we look at total responsibility for climate change, it has been disproportionately caused by light-skinned people of the Northern Hemisphere. Climate change is a White problem.

            … those with the greatest responsibility are disproportionately White countries of the global North.

    1. A question: are you unsure about whether or not climate change is predominantly caused by White people?

        1. In other words, you can no longer hide behind that ‘if’. Therefore you must truly believe that ‘we are in the early stages of an epic racial atrocity, one that will echo through world history for centuries to come.

          It’s words such as these and others I’ve quoted above that are why I don’t like your book. As I’ve said, I believe it betrays an irresponsible determination to exacerbate increasingly unpleasant divisions based on differences in skin pigmentation. It’s most unfortunate that you’ve adopted such a position.

          1. Good lord Robin, there’s no hiding going on here. Look at the title of the book! The ‘if’ invites the reader into the implications. I deliberately use strong language to show how climate change may come to be understood as a continuation of previous racist atrocities. It’s that serious. This is what our current moment calls us to – as previous generations had to make a stand on slavery, empire or segregation.

            The question then is what are you going to do about it?

            In your case, deny it, undermine it, and accuse those raising the question of bad faith.

            I know it’s an uncomfortable book, for white men such as you and I in particular. I say so at the start. But to me it was too important to ignore, and too serious to pull the punch. But I repeatedly say that it’s not about blaming white people, but accepting responsibility for historic inequalities.

            If you could get over your own indignation and think about it for a moment, suggesting I have a “determination to exacerabate” is a deeply insulting thing to say. You’re a whisker away from accusing me of hate speech. It’s the opposite of everything I stand for, which you ought to know after reading my blog for a decade. This book is a listening exercise, grounded in voices out of Africa in particular – where some already have a specific word for the ‘atrocity’ you deny: the maangamizi.

            You’ve said I’m ‘determined to exacerbate’ racial tensions three times now, despite me taking the time to answer your queries and write a post detailing exactly why – facts Robin! – the majority white nations are more responsible for climate change.

            So, I’m giving you one chance to retract your accusation, or I’m going to close this thread and ban you from commenting. You’ve had a decade of my patience, so don’t tell me I’m being oversensitive or flying off the handle. Nobody pays me to host this blog and this conversation. You’re my guest in this space and you have forgotten that.

            Make a good decision Robin, it’s not something I want to do.

          2. You ask what I’m going to do about it. Well, given that ‘it’ is the need to make radical and urgent cuts in GHG emissions (to avoid potential catastrophe) and given that, as a lawyer with a particular interest in international law, the interpretation of treaties and UN climate negotiations, I believe I can make a useful contribution, I’m already doing quite a lot. For example, last year I published this essay (one of a series): https://ipccreport.files.wordpress.com/2020/07/the-west-vs-the-rest-2.1.1.pdf. My position is that, if we (i.e. the US and EU) really want to make progress, the absolutely must face up to and deal with what’s going on in the world. And essentially that’s that most non-Western countries (the source of 75% of emissions) don’t regard climate change as a priority, focusing instead on economic growth and poverty eradication. And I’m making – albeit slow – progress: I’ve been quoted in Westminster and have been getting a very friendly and sympathetic response from my MP (Bim Afrolami). And BTW nobody pays me to pursue this.

            I don’t see how the position you’ve now taken can possibly achieve anything positive at all.

            And, yes, after reading your blog for a decade and, as your guest, having enjoyed our exchanges, I’m surprised and most disappointed that you’ve now adopted a most unfortunate skin pigmentation-focused position – totally at odds with for example Dr. King’s dicta.

            OK you’re going to close the thread and ban me from commentating. A pity – but so be it.

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