You’ve probably seen the posters in Exley about climate change. If you use Yik Yak, you may have also seen a few impassioned arguments about privilege and racism in the comments. You may even have heard people arguing about it in person. This is clearly an issue that some people on campus care about deeply. However, my initial reaction to the banner claiming that “Climate Change is Racist” was that it just didn’t make any sense. After all, how can something as inanimate as global warming prefer one race over another? That seemed like a bit of a silly catchphrase to stand behind. I thought that maybe this was just another example of people taking an important issue and applying gender or race issues to it in order to convince a certain group to support their cause. Some sources claim that environmental racism is exactly that: a way to redirect people who were fighting for their own personal rights toward a more universal issue. But I wanted to try and understand it a little better.
I found that the main argument for climate change being racist is that it affects some races more than others. Some entire countries will be damaged by changes in climate, without hurting other ones until much later. Even inside one country, the people who are affected by natural disasters like hurricanes and floods are sometimes predominantly from one race, class, or ethnic group, and many people accuse governments of being less inspired to help them due to racist apathy. Based on problems like these, some activists have made the argument that the people in unaffected places or groups simply don’t care about the lives of people outside their own everyday experience. Therefore, they aren’t willing to make the effort to change their lifestyle in order to save others. Is this just another example of predominantly Western “white” countries taking advantage of others?
I think that some people don’t want to pay attention to climate change until they see how it could affect them personally. And that’s clearly a problem. But I don’t think that simply calling them racist is going to help. There are so many more issues at work here, about poverty, social justice, class discrimination, and nationalism. It’s so easy for some people to ignore problems in parts of the world that we don’t have to think about every day. People in America will jump to support the victims of incidents of terrorism in the Western world, because it’s something that seems closer to home and affects business as usual. But sometimes the same news outlets won’t draw as much attention to similar incidents in other parts of the world. To say that people are being racist in climate change litigation could be countered by the argument that people are being discriminatory in all aspects of social change.
Obviously, that doesn’t mean we can dismiss these issues as an inherent aspect of life. We can’t let climate change become yet another issue where the Western world refuses to pay attention until it seems to threaten us personally. And yet, I think that calling climate change itself racist is a simplification of a series of issues that minimizes the main problem in favor of one facet. Climate change is a major problem, and it needs the attention of places that will not be immediately affected for several more decades. If activists claim that the only thing preventing this is the racism of these places, then they are ignoring several other aspects of the problem just so that the issue seems more applicable to them on a personal level. There are economic reasons, and political. There are also issues of discrimination beyond race. Apathy toward other nationalities and social groups is a huge issue that encompasses so much more than just racism. Climate change is an issue that we all need to face together if we can hope to ameliorate the future of the environment, regardless of the biases that affect some groups more in the present.
Setear is a member of the class of 2016.