Climate Change is Racist Book Review
I can imagine some people being immediately dismissive, or even appalled by the title of this book, but if they overcome their cynicism for curiosity, they will be stunned by the wealth of argument, research and clear observation. Straight off the bat, Jeremy Williams, author, clarifies his position. I wouldn't usually quote such a long passage but I think it's important for the rest of this review to understand where he is coming from:
"When people talk about racism, they often mean racial prejudice: the actions and opinions of racists...This is individual racism, and it may be strong or weak, overt or internalised. A second form of racism is institutional racism (a term that rose to prominence in Britain through the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry in 1999). Institutional racism happens when a public body is structured in a way that disadvantages people of colour. It occurs in policing and the courts, in school admissions, job applications, access to loans etc." Thirdly there is structural racism. And this is what climate change reinforces. Structural racism is a pattern of disadvantage that emerges from the overall functioning of the global system, often accumulated over centuries. He refers to it as "The scaffolding of policies, institutions, cultures and norms that perpetuate and reinforce racial inequality"
To set the scene further, Williams quotes Wen Stephenson, from his book What We're Fighting for Now is Each Other:
"If the abolition of slavery was a great human, moral struggle of the 18th and 19th centuries, then climate justice is the great human, moral struggle of our own time".
Williams points out "Everyone will have to decide where they stand" and neatly returns to this statement at the end of his book.
Chapter 2 is entitled Who Causes Climate Change? and includes some compelling data and graphs that I have copied out here:
Looking at electricity use in kwh per capita per year:
Canada - 14,612 kwh
Kuwait - 14,090 kwh
United States 12,154 kwh
Australia 9,502 kwh
Japan 7150 kwh
Germany 6306 kwh
China 4617 kwh
Britain 4496 kwh
Madagascar - 78 kwh
He goes into much more detail but essentially, what this data shows us (the graphs in particular) is that majority White countries contribute the most towards the acceleration of climate change, whilst feeling the least of its effects, whilst majority Black countries significantly contribute less carbon emissions, yet suffer the most from climate change. As Williams says:
It isn't correct to say that 'we' are overconsuming. 'We' are not using too much energy. Some people are overconsuming. And most of these people are white.
He includes some headlines that succinctly reflects this situation:
Just 100 companies are responsible for 71 per cent of CO2 (Carbon Majors Report, 2017)
20 firms are behind a third of global emissions (the Guardian, 2019)
Almost two thirds of global warming since 1888 caused by 90 per companies (Climatic Change, 2017)
...and then wraps this chapter up, driving home the point that: "A small number of big companies have made enormous profits from activities that have destroyed the climate". It is clear early on that our need for technology, power, and money, all of which are symptoms of the capitalist agenda continue to disproportionately affect people of colour. What Williams does brilliantly in this book though is, rather than alienate readers, he plants the seed, lets it grow, and returns to effectively round up any loose ends throughout. It is all constructed and packaged in a very effective way, that it is impossible to put the book down without being affected by what you've just read.
After starting his book focussing his attention on the main perpetrators of climate change he then channels most of his energy in giving voice to the main victims of it. In his next chapter, Who Suffers Climate Change?, Williams talks about The Risk Index, compiled using information from Munich Re, the German Insurance Giant. "The UN warns that information about natural disasters, such as Munich Re's database, tends to skew towards the global North... The result is that losses and damages are over-represented in richer countries."
We often tend to think that we are affected more than others. Combined with our affinity bias, white people have a distorted view of their impact and their suffering.
"In 2020, the relief agency Christian Aid ran a survey asking British people to say who they thought was most affected by the negative impacts of climate change. 26 per cent said it was Black, Asian or Arab people. 31 per cent thought White people were most affected, getting the injustice completely backwards." Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising considering our innate biases and the biased media informing us, but I still found this alarming to read. If we are to act on climate change now, and take a harder look at how it affects others, this response makes for depressing reading. The truth is, as Leon Sealey-Huggins writes,
"In most cases it is people of colour who will lose their lives as weather combines with inequality"
Chapters 3 and 4 investigates the intersection of race and class. For example. the practice of 'redlining', where businesses would not provide mortgages or services to Black families in certain neighbourhoods. This would lead to segregation and held down the value of Black family homes. As Williams says, environmental injustice was piled upon social injustice.
Similarly, I learned that a wide survey of environmental justice was carried out in France and "found that towns with a high proportion of immigrants were more likely to have hazardous waste sites".
'When we talk about environmental racism, we're talking about illegal dumping' says Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents the Bronx. 'We're talking about concentrating waste sites and concentrating highways and trucking zones through the poorest communities in the country, and the blackest communities and the brownest communities. And so, we already have an issue of extreme and acute concentration of respiratory illnesses in the Bronx'.
These chapters includes other examples of how the poorest suffer from environmental injustice, such as Hurricane Katrina, which reminded me of the recent Haitian Earthquake of 14th August 2021, which killed more than 2,200 with 30,000 having to abandon their home. I'm not suggesting that Earthquakes were caused by human exploitation of the planet but the aftermath of the disaster will be felt more acutely by a country that still feels the effects of a century of slavery. Later on in the book Williams talks about how little is reported of disasters and events that happen to people who are often not white. Labelled the Proximity Problem he writes "When it comes to news, people are naturally more interested in people like them". The point being that, not only are black people more likely to feel the effects of climate change, we're less likely to know about it and, sadly, less likely to care.
Another fascinating example of this lack of empathy or connection with disasters that happen outside of the white-centred norm was of Beira, Mozambique, just two years ago. Tropical cyclone Idai made landfall near the regional capital and Beira was hit by torrential rain and windspeeds of over a hundred miles an hour. "The city was flattened. 90 per cent of the buildings were lost, the port, schools, hospitals... Cyclone Idai was the second deadliest storm ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere, and it took the number one spot as the most expensive. A thousand people died in Mozambique alone. Because climate change is known to increase storm intensity over the Indian Ocean, some pointed out that Beira had a particular place in history: the first city to be completely destroyed by climate change." Poignantly, as he points out, barely anyone knows about this and he asks, crucially, "Would Beira be remembered if its citizens were White?".
Williams discusses further instances of intersectionality, that 'Women are disproportionately affected by climate change', for example. He cites many reasons why women would be more affected by climate change than men but importantly he goes beyond his feminist stance to challenge all inequities. I'm so glad he does this. All forms of activism, discrimination and issue-raising should acknowledge and highlight how other groups are affected. He continues: "Climate change is an environmental issue, a race issue and a women's issue... it acts as a multiplier of exclusion." He then lists the effects climate change has on other marginalised groups such as LGBTQ+, the elderly, and indigenous groups.
I have always been interested in the outright denial of racism or other forms of discrimination, thinking that if we can challenge people's biases, denial, fragility, then we could unlock their willingness to expose the realities. I learned many things from this book but, on this, I found that, according to Amercian social scientist, Salil Benegal, 'A high score on tests of racial prejudice and racial resentment were a strong indicator that people would also reject climate science'. The upshot being that to improve the effectiveness of antiracism, we should continue to encourage empathy and education because, unsurprisingly perhaps, people who are unempathetic or uneducated of one type of inequality are often so of other types.
What I really value about this book is that Williams is candid and forthcoming with a plethora of excellent data and references but is also willing to encourage change. He states, white people don't take it seriously enough. But rather than just criticise, he advises: "Painful as though it may be to admit, inequalities are perpetuated through small things as conversations at barbeques and at the school gates".
He also backs up his position, time and time again. On white ambivalence, there is a brilliant, and shocking, chapter on The Empathy Gap. Did you know, for instance, that Ebola first started in 1976 and that there have been twenty outbreaks since, all of them in Sub-Saharan Africa. "A vaccine for Ebola was finally deployed for the first time during an outbreak in 2019. It took over 40 years for an Ebola vaccine to become available commercially, yet here's the mystery: the first patent for an Ebola vaccine was granted in 2003. The company that acquired the patent did nothing with the research. It sat there unused for a decade. What happened to make them hurry it along? In September 2014, the first Ebola case on US soil was diagnosed in Texas. Just two weeks later the company's stock price soared when it announced the start of early vaccine trials." Further evidence, as this book and many others provide, that the greed of capitalism continues to disrupt the global equality.
This rings true with the Covid vaccines right now, doesn't it? According to Our World in Data on 26/08/21 33% of the world population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine yet only 1.4% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose. Simply, the rich countries don't care about the poor countries - the poor countries often made poor by the exploitation of rich countries themselves.
This book is just quotable, each chapter has such purposeful, crisp summaries and examples. One of my favourite paragraphs was in his chapter entitled Climate Privilege:
"Since white Anglo-Saxon men are among the most privileged people in human history, concerns about justice don't surface very often. These are capitalism's winners, climate winners, the beneficiaries of race and gender inequality.
He adds, with a quote from Jennie Stephens from her book Diversifying Power 'Those with privilege are generally less aware of the structural oppression that stratifies society than those without such privilege, which is why antiracist, feminist leadership is so critical'.
Williams continually encourages us to also keep in mind how the global south will experience the effect of climate change even more urgently than us. Probably the lasting legacy of this book on me was how to see environmental issues through a different lens. He quotes Asian environmentalist Amitav Ghosh, (the only non-white person who wrote one of the top 50 books on climate change, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable) "Look at the climate crises through the prism of empire" and follows this up with another remarkable quote that will stay with me, by Asad Rehman, a Pakistani-born British campaigner:
'We may all be on the Titanic, but it's the rich, White industrialised countries who are on the top deck, sipping thier cocktails, listening to the orchestra and waiting for some technological fix to save them, whilst in the hold of the Titanic are Black, Brown, Indigenous, poor Brown and Black people from the Global South, who are already drowning, and when they try and flee, they find that the escape hatch is bolted'.
Going back to the Beira example above, he asks if they see their experience of climate change represented.
In a subchapter on ecological debt he quotes Pope Francis: 'Developing countries, where the most important reserves of the biosphere are found, continue to fuel the development of richer countries at the cost of their own present and future... The developed countries ought to help pay this debt by significantly limiting their consumption of non-renewable energy and by assisting poorer countries to support policies and programmes of sustainable development'.
As a country, we should be taking responsibility for our actions, and paying for reparations. As individuals, we should be recognising the intersection that both race and the environment have, as well as other groups. We have talked already about intersectionality and the prism through which we should be viewing climate justice but he summarises this perfectly in his own words at the end of Chapter 10:
"When the conversation is dominated by White men, the debate can be skewed towards their priorities and preoccupations. A debate with more women, more racial diversity, more indigenous people, will be richer and more effective. It would be more alert to racism, to justice, and the many ways that people of colour are excluded... This is true not just of environmentalism of course, but of politics, art, popular culture and society at large."
Token gestures are not enough. Diversity is needed but representation, where marginalised groups are actually listened too, is even more important. We must get better at de-centering 21st century issues, especially climate change. It we increase our empathy and our understanding of how the environment impacts others, then we increase its urgency and, of course, the chance of any success.
Doing nothing is not an option. As Ibram X. Kendi, founder of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University, and author of How to be an Antiracist, says: "Do-nothing climate policy is racist policy, since the predominately non-White global South is being victimised by climate change more than the Whiter global North, even as the Whiter global North is contributing more to its acceleration".
Emma Dabiri and Ta-Nahisi Coates both talk about overcoming White Guilt as this stops people actually being proactive and productive in their activism. I learned from this book that the Germans have a word for learning from and reckoning with a difficult past: vergangenheitsbewältigung. We need to do this! As I now end most articles saying, ignorance is not an excuse.
We need to talk about it. We need to research and act. Joining the Green New Deal is one such way that Williams suggests and is a way of encouraging and listening to the voices of everyone and formulating plans that benefit everyone too. And although one might feel that individual actions may feel insignificant, he points out that "Personal actions can model the change we want to see". Furthermore, it is "An act of solidarity with those who are suffering."
The final quote I want to end with is his attempt to encourage action. This whole book is full of reasons to pay attention to climate injustice but to simply take on board what is communicated is almost as good as not reading it at all. We must do something with this knowledge. It must inform our actions, our conversations and our empathy.
'You don't have to be a racist to be racist... It's racist just to passively allow racism to continue' OluTimehin Adegbeye
The book has reinforced my anti-capitalism stance. The rapid advancement of technology, the over-consumption of fuel, rampant consumerism, all increase global inequality. This book perfectly illustrates how a significant number of people of colour are still affected by the actions of mostly white people, even after centuries of slavery and colonialism. It argues unequivocally that antiracism should incorporate environmental activism, and vice-versa. Finally it does so compellingly, without arrogance, without judgement. Its fervent, objective fact-providing, along with his modest summaries, are all that is needed to provide a brutally effective dismantling of white involvement in climate injustice. I implore all to read it. It is inclusive in its activism, it is direct in its communication and it is utterly urgent in its timing.