The racism of climate change

December 4, 2009 at 2:04 am 1 comment

The treatment of desperate refugees has again become a central concern in Australian politics. The Rudd government’s “tough” policy of offshore mandatory detention for refugees is in breach of international human rights law. The two big parties have whipped up a racist hysteria about the supposed threat posed by small boatloads of desperate asylum seekers fleeing oppression, war and genocide.

Some may doubt that this inhumane refugee policy has anything to do with climate change. But in truth, the Australian government’s treatment of refugees has a lot to do with its response to global warming.

If we are going to build a movement powerful enough to halt climate change then we have to know exactly what we’re up against. One of the things we need to know is that climate change is racist.

Of course, by this I don’t mean the greenhouse effect is anti-Semitic or that carbon dioxide gas has an irrational hatred of Asians.

But nonetheless, climate change is inextricably tied to racism. It’s necessary to take up the fight against racism in all its forms if we are going to make the fundamental social changes needed to win a safe climate.

Climate change is a result of an economic and social system organised along racial lines. The past few centuries of capitalist production for profit has divided the world between a minority of “have” nations and a majority of exploited “have not” nations (mostly in Asia, Latin America, Oceania and Africa).

Today’s climate crisis has been made by the so-called “developed” industrialised countries, whose past emissions make up about three-quarters of carbon pollution now in the air.

Climate science reliably informs us that the same unsustainable system that had created a kind of global apartheid has now also undermined the ecological balance of the planet.

Fossil fuels have featured in the creation of this unequal world. Some of the poorest nations are also among the “richest” in natural resources, including oil, coal and natural gas.

Some economists have called this the “resource curse”. But it really reflects the unequal economic relationship between the small number of industrialised countries and the rest. The economic benefits of fossil-fuel extraction have mostly flowed back to the First World, but the associated pollution problems have not.

The impacts of climate change are also racist. Or more precisely, dangerous climate change will impact first on those who have done least to cause the problem. That rising sea-levels will soon make many island nations in the Pacific Ocean uninhabitable is just one example of this gross climate injustice.

But throughout the global South, the prevailing poverty and underdevelopment will inflame the effects of climate change. A critical issue will be food-security. About 1 billion people are already starving worldwide — almost all in the South. But the United Nation predicts changing weather patterns and water losses caused by global warming could cause a 25% drop world food production by 2050.

Many of the business-as-usual solutions to climate change are racist. Carbon offsets are based on the idea that corporations in the rich countries can pay carbon projects in poor countries to make emissions cuts instead. In effect, offsets allow the biggest polluters to export responsibility for cutting greenhouse gases. Critics have decried the system as a new “carbon colonialism”.

The fast-growing market in offsets, which makes the carbon stored in forests a valuable commodity, has already led to evictions of tribal peoples from their forests in some countries. A November 23 report by Survival International said the Ogiek hunter-gatherers of Kenya “are being forced from the forests they have lived in for hundreds of years to ‘reverse the ravages’ of global warming”.

The biofuels industry is another example of a “response” to climate change that compounds problems for the world’s poorest. Because it uses food to feed cars instead of people, its expansion will worsen climate change-induced food shortages

Racism is an ideology that justifies inequality and oppression. It’s not just about hate crimes, vilification and discrimination — although these are very real consequences of racism too. In particular, racism works to make ordinary people in places like Australia to become desensitised to poverty and injustice elsewhere.

No one will escape the impacts of global warming. But the rich nations are far better placed to adapt and secure scarce resources for themselves — at least in the short-term. Meanwhile, Oxfam predicts up to 200 million people in the South will be climate refugees by mid-century unless radical action is taken to curb emissions.

The governments of the first world will be able to get away with business-as-usual on climate change as long as racist ideas, even subtle ones, prevail.

Ending the threat of climate change requires ending the right of the vested interests, primarily the world’s big corporate polluters, from continuing to pollute the planet for profit.

Most of all, it’s a struggle to keep all remaining fossil fuels in the ground.

This requires a movement of global solidarity. Informed and determined people in each country have to force this change. Racism is one of the biggest barriers to building this kind of movement.

Unless racist ideas are discredited and pushed back, conservative politicians will be able to keep manipulating the debate to shift the blame. A favourite at the moment is blaming China or India for global warming, even though Australia’s emissions are the world’s worst per person.

A great danger for the climate movement is if it buys into the idea that refugees and migrants pose a threat, or will make climate change worse.

For example, it’s been distressing to see comments in the blogosphere from self-styled environmentalists supporting the Rudd government’s anti-refugee policy. Their rationale? Giving sanctuary to refugees would add to Australia’s population, thereby increasing our already too-high carbon emissions.

But the idea there is a “fortress Australia” solution to global warming is ludicrous. Nor should the very real threat of climate change become a sorry excuse for inhumane policies to vulnerable people.

Because climate change is racist, and because racist ideas allow business-as-usual advocates off the hook, actively countering racism is essential for the climate movement. It’s an inescapable component of the campaign if we are serious about winning.


Entry filed under: climate justice, Racism, refugees.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Ben Courtice  |  January 27, 2010 at 6:14 am

    I was reading this article in Green Left today.

    I found myself thinking: good article but in many cases I’d replace the word “racism” with “imperialism”.

    Imperialism is what curses the third world masses (who largely are not “white”) to poverty and climate doom.

    Racism has historically been an ideology, at times a state ideology, that justifies and perpetuates this situation, going back to the days of the Atlantic slave trade.

    However, the grim fate awaiting the world’s poor has little to do with their colour or racist ideology. Certainly, racism is used and stirred up by movements of refugees, by war and any political crisis. But equally in the era of “globalised” capitalism there is a fairly cosmopolitan thread running through many right-wing political circles. Obama for example. Is it useful to decry them for racism when their victims happen not to be white?

    Sometimes it is. Where there is a history of racism, where the actions show particular discrimination. Where racism is being stirred up on this issue or any other, it has to be addressed.

    But I thinkthat the fundamental motor isn’t racist ideology, its the economy of imperialism. It doesn’t matter if it’s white Europeans in Moldova or black Africans in Ethiopia. The capitalist elite (and their dupes in the working class) don’t care about the downtrodden of the world.

    Further, if we rely on the racist argument, we undermine our own case if we can’t show clearly that this is real racism. Sure appealing to anti-racist sentiment is easy because it’s such a discredited ideology on an intellectual level. But it also misses a golden opportunity to explain the greater problem of imperialism, and how the nationalist, xenophobic and racist ideas are promoted by imperialism. Not sure how easily that would fit into a short Green Left article but I think it’s more useful. In a way you have done this in a case study, but only implicitly.


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