climate change race

Is it helpful to talk about climate and race?

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.

23 comments

  1. When someone says they can’t understand why people disagree with a particular position it is actually revealing a failure of understanding by the speaker.

    You say “Campaigners say that not being racist is inadequate. We need to be actively anti-racist”. That’s an assertion from you but while it may not be how you see it campaigners with far more influence than you, such as Ibrahim Kendi, define ‘anti-racism’ in very fixed ways which involve positive discrimination and explicit anti capitalism. When you understand that is what many people hear when you say ‘anti-racism’ then you might start to understand why it’s becoming a polorising issue rather than the uncontroversial one you think it is.

      1. Yes. I don’t much fancy his Iranian style Council of Guardians policy proscriptions.

        Do you understand why people of good faith could disagree with his ideas, or the idea of ‘anti-racism’ (as opposed to not being racist) yet?

        1. Could you dig me up a couple of quotes on his council of guardians? I missed that.

          It’s possible to read a book, learn a lot from it, appreciate its perspective, and agree with some it and not all of it. Which is why it doesn’t entirely make sense to say I ‘agree’ or ‘disagree’ with an author. I honestly couldn’t tell you if I agree or disagree with Bill Gates, for example. I expect people of good faith would read Kendi in similar fashion.

          He is, however, not the only voice on anti-racism. As Desmond Tutu said, “if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

          1. His whole last chapter on his idea of a ‘Department of Anti-Racism’ is a call for an unelected body to supervise the democratically elected government, preventing them implementing any policy deemed to be racist under Kendi’s very wide definition of racism (anything where there are unequal outcomes between groups). That is very similar to the Iranian Council of Guardians who are Islamic scholars who guard against any ‘unIslamic’ policies or politicians in the Islamic Republic.

            We are getting away from why people of good faith would disagree with your claim that climate change is racist. At its heart is the idea of structural racism, similar to Kendi’s definition that racism is “A racist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial inequity between racial groups”. Until recently the definition of racism was “the belief that people of some races are inferior to others, and the behaviour which is the result of this belief”. This is seen as a moral failing by most people and to be accused of it is a hurtful insult.

            The new definition is so wide as allow you to define almost anything as racist depending on how you define the groups. Structural racism is found by working backwards, its inferred from the results. That no two racial groups in history have ever had exactly equal outcomes allows anything to be caught in that definition. Its so unfocused, being able look at any level in order to find the desired result (Racism!). It removes any agency from the groups involved. Unless you agree with actions including positive discrimination to directly address this inequity (inequality of outcome) you are racist. If you don’t agree with the idea of structural racism then you would not see those things its applied to as racist, though under Kendi disagreeing with that is of itself racist. As Kendi and others in this area define it seeking to be colour-blind is racist.

            To be called racist under the new definition when you have tried not be racist under the previous definition is deeply hurtful. People just can’t turn on a dime when a group remote from wider society announce that the meaning of words has changed. Its almost as if the moral distaste of the more individual meaning of the term is being hijacked to give moral sheen to a version of racial socialism.

            The outcomes demanded of Antiracism is Equity which seems to be equality of outcome. You understand that many people disagree with the idea of equality of outcome for moral and practical reasons.

            Others might feel that you are conflating poverty with race. That the people vulnerable from climate change are poor, and that looking globally the areas that are poorer and mostly inhabited by people who aren’t white allows you to conflate the two but other than using the definition of structural racism it would fail under then more widely accepted notions.

            These are just a few of the reasons why people might disagree in good faith with your thesis. Trying to understand why people disagree is very good practice. Not only does it test your own thinking but if you know why people disagree you can deal with their objections rather than writing them off, which given you are in a minority, trying to convince the majority, seems a foolish way to proceed.

          2. Which book are we talking about? In my copy of ‘How to be an Anti-Racist’, the last chapter is about his cancer diagnosis.

            These are very familiar arguments, so I don’t accept the idea that I’m not listening. I write about race precisely because I am listening. This is post written in response to an honest question.

            This isn’t to do with changing definitions, but evolving understanding. After centuries of racist opinions and policies, racism is now embedded in the structures of society. Just not being racist leaves all those structures intact. Everyone in the world could never have a racist opinion again, and the inequality would remain. It has to be deliberately unpicked.

            You deny the existence of structural racism, so it’s hardly surprising that you don’t see the racial dimension to climate change. But don’t be so quick to describe me as a radical minority setting myself against ‘people of good will’. That’s not how the response the book is getting, and that’s a divisive take on it that you won’t get from me.

          3. Interesting that you are more concerned about getting a ‘Gothca’ so you can claim I haven’t read a book (a book I read a year ago from my library so don’t have to hand) rather than address an anti democratic idea in the penultimate chapter of Kendi’s book. The quibble defence (“You said last chapter, it was the second to last so you are wrong and therefore everything else is wrong. Nah nah nah”) doesn’t work. It is childish and weak.

            You are trying hard to avoid Kendi’s anti democratic ideas. Is an unelected Department of Anti-Racism the kind of thing you support but don’t want to mention?

            Interestingly for someone who listens you have not read my comment very well. I didn’t say structural racism doesn’t exist, just it’s a very bad way to evaluate things. Also I didn’t call you a radical. Why are you making things up. Again it’s a childish form of argument. Deal with what someone says, don’t try strawman them.

            Have you been taking your book outside the middle class left wing environmentalist circles you go round in? Narrowcasting to the people who already think everything is racist is hardly a tough crowd.

          4. Not remotely interested in catching you out. I’m asking for the relevant passage. Nor am I dodging the issue. Find me the passage and we’ll talk about it. (It’s not the penultimate chapter either) I’m not going to read the whole book again in search of something you saw that I didn’t.

          5. As that book has gone back to the library I can’t tell you. I remember he made reference to it in the chapter outlying what Success looked like but here is an article expanding it https://www.politico.com/interactives/2019/how-to-fix-politics-in-america/inequality/pass-an-anti-racist-constitutional-amendment/

            This is irrelevant from the question is it helpful to talk about climate change as racist. I outlined how people can hold principle reasons for disagreeing with that but the key question is what will be achieved by calling climate change racist? The moral objection that climate change will have an unequal effect on the poorest in the world is already made. Yet that moral case hasn’t made much difference to how climate change is tackled. The structural racist case is just another version of that argument, so why will it be any different? But what you do is play into the ‘Everything’s racist’ narrative. And if everything is racist then nothing is. It doesn’t broaden the support for tackling climate change in a globally just way.

          6. You must have read a different edition, as I just re-read it and I can’t find it in the Success chapter either. But you’re right when you say it’s irrelevant – though you’re the one who brought up Kendi (again).

            Don’t do the ‘everything is racist’ thing. There is no ‘everything is racist narrative’. That’s something propagated by Sun columnists, and it’s an excuse for writing off things we don’t want to talk about.

            What might be achieved by talking about the racial dimension of climate change? Justice.

            If you genuinely want to know more about it, you should read the book.

          7. Not worried about sounding pompous then?

            This isn’t going to achieve anything, it’s narrowcasting to the converted.

            The problem with terming things in an ever expanding definition of ‘racism’ is that it becomes ever more meaningless. You say language evolves but it’s evolving like the word ‘literally’, which no longer just means literally, it also now means ‘metaphorically’ too..

            While you deny the ‘everything’s racist’ narrative using the expanded definitions you do I can if I choose define anything as racist. I know you don’t follow funny people but satirical character Titania McGrath has an ever expanding list of over 150 things that are now ‘racist’.

            It is becoming a joke and so is losing its moral weight. Overused the currency of ‘racism’ is being debased such that your thesis will not be taken seriously. This isn’t the way to achieve justice.

          8. I grew up in Madagascar, which is already being devastated by a climate crisis it did not cause. That is an injustice and one that has always motivated my work. If you think it’s pompous to want justice for Madagascar, I absolutely do not care.

            After you leave school, nobody makes you read books or blogs. You pick up what you will find useful. Like any book in the world, mine is there for those who are interested in having this conversation. That includes plenty who are already convinced, but by no means exclusively.

            Nice to see your high view of language. I expect you’ve been in to bat for clouds remaining in the sky, webs being weaved by spiders and streaming being reserved for taps and noses.

            I certainly hope you’ve been out there defending those evolving terms. If you reserve your indignation for definitions of racism, which has been understood as more than personal for at least half a century, people might raise a good faith eyebrow.

          9. I made it very clear that I understand why you think climate change is a injustice to those who live in poorer countries. What I strongly disagree is your assertion that this is ‘racism’. Racism is a serious accusation and serious accusations require high levels of evidence, not working back from an assertion that any unequal outcomes between racial groups is evidence of racism.

            This ever expanding definition of racism is a problem because for most people the original meaning, individual racism, is still the one they think of whenever they hear the term and that meaning (if not the others) has great moral weight. You don’t seem to understand this.

            Over the last 50 years individual racism had declined greatly in this country. But widening the definition of racism to include structural racism has been used to give the impression that racism is ‘worse than ever’. This has harmful effects. Non white people fear they are at risk greater than the reality. This lowers their faith in society. Ironically creating additional unequal outcomes such as in COVID vaccination that are then pointed to as examples of (structural) racism. Middle class liberals who think racism is increasing but see less of it in their groups blame poorer working class people as that is where the racism logically must be. This lowers the social bonds. Alternatively due to the idea of prevalence based concept change they start seeing racism in more and more things leading to a desire to break everything down to remove this moral stain.
            The ever expanding idea of racism is one of the things that is pulling our society apart.

            I have no truck with actual racism, be it individual or institutional and work to remove it but ideas such as structural racism are not just wrong headed but harmful to society. That is why I object to this use of the term.

          10. When I was a child I understood money as coins. Then I understood paper money. Later I found out about non-physical forms of exchange like credit and debit cards. As an adult things like crytocurrency have come to challenge my definitions of money further.

            As I have grown up, my understanding of what money is has developed and evolved. Your understanding of racism needs to do the same. It’s not ‘ever expanding’, and it’s not getting worse. It’s also not new, not difficult, and not controversial.

            The Collins dictionary recognises that racism is more than inter-personal:

            “Racism is the belief that people of some races are inferior to others, and the behaviour which is the result of this belief. Racism also refers to the aspects of a society which prevent people of some racial groups from having the same privileges and opportunities as people from other races.”

            You are railing against something you have not understood. I know you haven’t understood it because you claim that working class people are blamed “as that is where the racism logically must be”. No no no – the whole point of structural racism is that it is structural. It is embedded, and it can persist long past the point when you can identify specific people as personally prejudiced.

            That’s why the term structural racism is important, because it takes us away from blame and finger-pointing, and gets to the practical business of redressing inequalities.

            Imagine you were trying to have a conversation about the economy with someone who insisted that money means coins and notes and nothing more. Would you continue to respond to their comments? Or would you think that maybe you were wasting your time?

          11. Thing is there is a debate about the usefulness structural racism. People like Glen Loury & Wilfred Riley to name but two. You insist it’s decided, but it isnt.

            You are are quite wrong that structural racism takes away the emotional charge of racism. It does not. As we have discussed the same point can be made without using the word racism. So why use it. Because it DOES have that emotional charge which can be used to lever people into backing an argument they don’t agree with for fear of being seen as being in favour of racism. You seem to go around in a total daze about how other people react to all this.

            I’ve made some of my points why this approach is harmful. You reject them all. I’ll leave this with the advice that telling people they don’t understand has never been a way to persuade the uncommitted. So carry on.

          12. I am well aware of how people react, and much of it is an over-reaction because they haven’t understood that structural racism isn’t about personal prejudice. I happen to think justice is more important than white people’s feelings, and that silence protects privilege, and so I will have this conversation with anyone who wants to engage constructively.

            That doesn’t include you apparently, but you object to my posts on feminism and economic inequality too, so at least you’re consistent.

            I have other things to do now, but have a good Christmas.

  2. Two points:-
    (1) Near the top of your email there is a statement ‘Respond to this post by replying above this line’. This – clearly – is wrong. It should read – instead – ‘Comment on this post after having read it through to the end.’?
    (2) I also think you are largely wrong in your contention that climate change is particularly linked to a racial dimension. It is not. THE main factor involved is class – not race. The wealthy capitalist and aspiring capitalist (India/China?) regimes are more concerned about retaining economic superiority than they are about race issues. You really should stop trying to sound so uber-virtuous and start taking down all the little straw men polluting your mental environment.

    1. 1) That’s an automated WordPress thing and beyond my control I’m afraid – but yes, ideally people should read to the end before commenting.
      2) It’s both. As I mention in the book, race is one facet of climate justice. Class is another. So is gender. There are inter-generational and geographical divides. They all matter.

  3. See this report on today’s BBC News web site: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-51235105.
    It seems to me that vaccine hesitancy is a far more accurate predictor of related infection rates, rather than any other factor.
    What causes the hesitancy is what needs investigating.
    For a global comparison, see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-51235105.
    Africa clearly is under-vaccinated but this is probably largely down to low wealth levels, low education levels and poor government administrations.

  4. With regard to your Desmond Tutu saying, the fact – for example – that African countries and peoples are under-vaccinated is not necessarily a question of active oppression by other countries or peoples.
    Greta Thunberg – as an example – has arranged financial support for the Covax programme. See https://www.brusselstimes.com/health/165647/greta-thunberg-supports-covax-system-against-vaccine-inequality-tedors-who-pandemic-gavi-cepi.
    Western governments are also financially supporting this initiative.
    Again – I am afraid – you are virtue-signalling when using the Tutu quotation.

  5. I agree with DevonChap DECEMBER 3, 2021 AT 11:04 AM.

    “When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

    ’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

    ’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”

    ― Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

    This is an amusing example by Lewis Carroll but people using their own definitions of words can lead everyone else into a dystopian nightmare closely mirroring the Kafkaesque world of The Trial.

    See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Trial

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