A few months on from publication, and after a whole string of events with different audiences, I’m getting a feel for the sorts of questions that people have about my book Climate Change is Racist. For the most part I’ve been surprised by how receptive people are to its arguments. Very few take against the book once they’ve read it or heard me speak, but there is one question that comes up from time to time that I thought I’d address: is it helpful?
Here’s the question as it was framed to me on an online forum:
“I wonder what you achieve by making this a racism issue. Of course there is nothing wrong with placing a global problem in a larger context. But does it help to make people aware of that connection and does it encourage them to take action? It seems counterproductive to me, because it is so strongly polarizing.”
This question has come up a few times in slightly different forms. The gist of it is that even if we can acknowledge that there is a racial dimension to climate change, why bring it up? If we can all agree that we need to act on climate change, isn’t it better to ignore it rather than raise a controversial point?
There are a few answers to this, with all the usual provisos of this being my perspective as a writer with no first-hand experience of racism. First of all, this is a white person’s question – or it certainly has been every time it’s been asked to me. I haven’t yet had a person of colour ask if we should ignore racism in order to keep the peace. And that begs the question – is the desire to ignore the racial dimension a way of protecting white privilege, or dodging a conversation that makes us uncomfortable?
Racism will not end if we all just ignore it and stop ‘bringing it up’ or ‘making things about race’. It’s embedded in the structures of our global systems, and so it has to be proactively addressed. This is why campaigners say that not being racist is inadequate. We need to be actively anti-racist, and talking about it honestly and openly is the first step towards that.
Secondly, why should the racial dimension of climate change be ‘strongly polarizing’? We ought to be able to agree by now that racism is a bad thing, and that anti-racism is a good thing. If there’s a racist dimension to climate change – and there is – then we have a moral responsibility to take that seriously. If some are finding that claim divisive, it’s worth interrogating that and finding out why. What exactly is the objection? Is there a genuine disagreement there, or is the division mainly a manufactured one, based on ‘culture wars’ identity politics?
Third, we have to take the racial injustice of climate change seriously because it has already shaped the world’s response to the crisis. Whether consciously or not, decisions have been made about who has value and who doesn’t, who deserves protection and who can take their chances. The Paris Agreement and successive conferences have aimed to keep below 2 degrees of warming rather than 1.5. Who suffers if we go with the higher target? Mainly Sub-Saharan Africa and small island states. The implicit message in sacrificing these places is that they have less value, that these people don’t matter, these cultures are not important. This is a racist calculus.
If we don’t have an honest conversation about environmental justice, globally and locally, future decisions will continue to harm people of colour more than white people. The consequences of the climate crisis will fall hardest on black and brown people, adding another chapter to a long history of racial oppression.
Finally, on the specific point of whether or not the racial dimension of climate change leads to action or not: in my case, it does. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I find justice is a major motivation for changing my own lifestyle and advocating for wider change. I can act in solidarity with those suffering already, and it gives a new dynamic to the small actions I am able to take. I can take responsibility for the privilege I have been handed, and my own country’s troubled place in history, as part of my role in the wider story of climate change.
So is it helpful to talk about climate change and race? Absolutely. More than that – it’s an imperative. To see it and ignore it is dishonest, and silence always protects privilege.