climate change equality

The moral outrage of climate change

in his book The Flag, the Cross and the Station Wagon, Bill McKibben describes an experience in Bangaldesh. There was an outbreak of Dengue fever in the capital, Dhaka. Dengue is a mosquito-borne disease that benefits from the warmer and wetter conditions that climate change is creating in places like Bangladesh, and so cases of Dengue have been rising as the world warms.

McKibben, who caught Dengue himself, observed that Bangladeshis had minuscule carbon footprints and so had done nothing to contribute to the problem. The hospitals were crammed with thousands of people suffering from something caused by others elsewhere. “As I looked at those cots,” McKibben writes of those crowded hospitals, “the actual meaning of climate change became clearer to me: it was, along with a practical threat, the most immoral thing imaginable.”

Examples of climate injustice are now frequent. In the last month there have been two particularly notable ones. The heatwave in South Asia is one. Temperatures hid the mid-40s C, setting new records for the time of year. As always, those who suffer most are those who are elderly or unwell, and labourers who work outside. Scientists can now establish whether or not these sorts of events are a result of climate change, or might have happened regardless. World Weather Attribution calculate that this heatwave was made 30 times more likely by climate change.

There’s even more certainty about the recent drought in the Horn of Africa. Scientists modelled the likelihood of drought in today’s world (the upper set of curves in this diagram), and the 1.2C cooler world that we would have if there was no climate change (the lower set). The exact circumstances of the current drought are likely to recur every ten years or so in our warmer world, and “would not have led to drought at all in a 1.2°C cooler world.”

You can look up the technical detail of the study here, but the important point is that this is a climate change disaster. It has been caused by global warming. Over four million people have needed emergency aid. The misery, malnourishment and displacement are a direct result of climate change. It would not have happened if the world had heard the warning and reduced emissions when we first understood the importance of doing so.

McKibben is right. Climate change is “the most immoral thing imaginable.”

I don’t know how you feel about that. I did a talk on climate justice last week in a leafy rural town an hour’s drive from me. It was the same talk I usually give, but it got more push-back than any other audience I’ve spoken to. Several people took against my arguments – respectfully, but forcefully – and the most hostile were all white, all men, and all in their 60s and 70s. You can’t expect people to give up things they like, they told me. You can’t win people over by telling them to make sacrifices. People are attached to their way of life.

But is it a way of life? It looks more like a way of death to me. It’s just that the deaths will happen out of sight and out of mind, to other people who are not like us.

What do we do about it? We tell the truth, for a start. We call it the moral offense that it is. Then we work to reduce emissions, in ways that benefit the poor first. And we pay for loss and damage, starting with those causing the most harm.


  1. Very accurately put Jeremy and these white middle class deniers/delayers/dissonancers must be confronted as often as possible with all the global negative externalities of their current lifestyles both by journalists/all media and a world parliament (should there be compulsory voting? … some thing to give some thought to!)

  2. I dunno. If these men came to a talk, and engaged with the speaker, respectfully, then I think they are already part of the solution. As Anita Chitaya says in the film, “The Ants & the Grasshopper,” denial is the first step towards change. And, if we think about it, those of us who have accepted the problem and have been working on it were probably exposed to a different narrative in a different way, when we were younger. So, if we were given the opportunity to help and understand before we were accused of villainy, we should recognize other people’s desire for this same chance. Older people mostly had no idea that this was happening. If the experience of talking with them seems hopeless, might showing “The Ants & the Grasshopper” or another gently humorous film achieve the same goal with less acrimony? It’s very gentle, but also holds up that mirror…

    1. I’ve been doing a project with the Climate Action Unit at UCL recently, and one of things they say is how we have to be careful not to make assumptions about people who disagree with us – thinking that they are ‘ignorant, stupid, crazy or evil’. In our climate privilege, it’s entirely possible to go through life and never be exposed to the difficult questions round climate change.

      I was unfailingly polite and respectful in my replies, and willing to say that I’m not going to have everything right. That’s the best I can do, and if it makes them think, maybe it’s the start of something for them.

      1. Oh yes! I did not mean to imply any acrimony on your part. Absolutely, you’re right, if you’re making people think, then you’re gotten them to the starting point. UCL = University College London?

          1. Got it. For your interest: your book upset me enough that it motivated me to finally switch over from a domain that used to offset to one that has its own solar panels on-site. I’d been putting it off, but it was too upsetting to learn that elephants in a national park in Africa died…of starvation…during a drought in 2019. Now AISO is my host and it’s a good feeling! Thank you!

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