Alongside COVID-19, the fight against social and racial inequality has dominated news coverage for the past couple of months. Whilst the recent public attention is long overdue, social and racial injustices have been pervasive issues in our societies for a long, long time. For many people, their entire lives, as well as their futures, are defined by injustice.
At Target 2030, we chose to stop posting on social media a few months back as we felt unsure about the climate crisis’s space in public conversation in the throws of a global pandemic and the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement. However, it’s clear that both issues have an irrefutable relationship to the climate crisis, so we’ve decided to kick-start the conversation once more.
First up, Alexa has taken some time to detail many of the ways in which the climate crisis perpetuates and exacerbates existing inequalities, making it increasingly hard to coordinate our efforts to fight climate change.
The World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations (U.N.) have released numerous reports detailing the impact of climate change on issues such as health and disease, food insecurity, mortality rates, and conflict. Rapidly changing temperatures, air pollution, droughts, floods, crop failures, water access, and disrupted access to health and social services are all exacerbating social inequalities internationally and within individual countries.
In the U.N.’s sustainable development goals they outline 17 key objectives that will promote equality and social justice whilst also tackling the climate crisis. If we don’t individually, nationally and internationally make the connection between these issues and meet these goals, many of our climate change mitigation efforts will be in vain and millions will suffer.
Each time we fail to address the most potent ways in which climate change affects social and racial equality we create the conditions of conflict. Each resulting conflict diminishes the chances of global cooperation to save humanity.
Inequality & International Co-operation In The Climate Crisis
Globally the economic and social capital available to different nations directly affects our attempts to collaborate on emissions reduction. Not only that, but it’s crystal clear that we cannot succeed in reducing greenhouse gas emissions without addressing the historical and existing inequalities between nations.
Wealthy and developed nations such as the United States or China, which tend to be the biggest polluters of our planet, have the resources to cope with and recover from impacts of climate change. Developing countries do not have the same luxury, and rightly feel disadvantaged by not being able to lean on fossil fuels to power the economic growth that is known to improve levels of equality. This was a key factor in the Paris Climate Agreement allowing nations to set their emissions reductions targets nationally, and likewise it’s clear that when this agreement is failing (which it currently is), we are also choosing to increase the inequality between nations and their people.
As inequality of outcomes accelerates, so too will our inability to act in preventing the worst outcomes of the climate crisis.
Not only do we have to contend with existing economic inequalities, but it is expected that countries with the lowest GDPs will suffer the most dire consequences of climate change – higher mortality rates, disease and pandemics, an increased frequency and severity of natural disasters, extreme heat waves, drought, excess rainfall and flooding, to name a few. Each of these economic, social and environmental inequalities will drive international conflict at a time when we need cooperation most.
The risks to international cooperation are perhaps best illustrated by one of the largest international crises driving inequality – displaced persons.
Take the Syrian Civil War, where millions of Syrian refugees have been forced to flee and countless lives have been lost. Whilst we can’t be certain that climate change played a part in the specific drought conditions that drove rural populations to urban centres, and lead to the resource constraints that pushed the country to civil war, we can be sure that climate change will increase the regularity and severity of droughts globally. Each instance of climate crisis related drought will drive conflict over scarce resources.
In any conflict zone, inequalities skyrocket. Many have been fortunate enough to escape Syria, but livelihoods and life opportunities have been decimated at best, and lives ended at worst. So has the world responded to the problem? As some may recall, Syrian refugees were not always welcomed with open arms by citizens of the international community, and the influx of Syrian refugees was not evenly distributed across countries.
Not only are the consequences for the human population and global population alarming, the environmental outcomes for Syria are devastating. This is what happens when climate crisis outcomes are unequally distributed – divisions are amplified, inequalities further entrenched, climate and environmental disasters exacerbated.
Whether it’s civil war in Syria, or Bangladeshis displaced by flooding, humanity is on the move. Every displaced person becomes yet another climate refugee, in a system ill-equipped to cope – tens of millions of people are living in squalid, desperate circumstances. As these people see their lives destroyed they are subsequently demonised or feared in the developed economies who’s duty it is to support them.
And yes, not all modern refugee crises are a direct result of climate change, but U.N. projections estimate that there will be 200 million climate refugees by 2050. How well the international community will be able to adapt to these mass migrations resulting from climate-driven events in the coming decades will also depend on how the receiving countries are being impacted by similar events. If a developing country is already struggling to fight the effects of climate change due to limited resources or political will, how can they deal with the additional needs of many millions of displaced refugees?
As we see an increase in conflicts over scarce resources in the coming century, it’s hard not to wonder whether attitudes toward refugees will worsen, even in the countries most responsible for contributing to the climate change in the first place. Will the 15 countries who are responsible for 72% of global emissions be held accountable for the people who are most affected by their emissions in the developing world?
Consequences For Nations
Even when we put the unequal geopolitical outcomes and issues around international co-operation aside, the same concerning trends regarding inequality are clear.
In the United States, which is per-capita the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the world, increasing wildfires, tropical storms and other natural disasters such as flooding are going to hit poor communities the hardest. The inequitable distribution of this burden will continue to drive social and political unrest, making it ever harder to bring racial injustice and climate change to heel.
Take Southern and Southeastern states like Texas, Louisiana, and Georgia, which are home to some of the most vulnerable populations in the United States. As temperatures increase and natural disasters become more frequent, there’s predicted to be an incredible wealth transfer from the poorest counties in the south, to well-off Northeast and coastal communities:
“Across the country’s southern half—and especially in states that border the Gulf of Mexico—climate change could impose the equivalent of a 20-percent tax on county-level income, according to the study. Harvests will dwindle, summer energy costs will soar, rising seas will erase real-estate holdings, and heatwaves will set off epidemics of cardiac and pulmonary disease.
The loss of human life dwarfs all the other economic costs of climate change. Almost every county between El Paso, Texas, and Charlotte, North Carolina, could see their mortality rate rise by more than 20 people out of every 100,000. By comparison, car accidents killed about 11 Americans out of every 100,000 in 2015.
But in the South and Southwest, other damages stack up. Some counties in eastern Texas could see agricultural yields fall by more than 50 percent. West Texas and Arizona may see energy costs rise by 20 percent.”
How does a democratic nation, with a reflexive dislike of federalism, counter this sort of impact? The answer is not clear. As millions of Americans become unable to support themselves economically, or to see a future for their families, what next? One thing we can say with confidence: they won’t be thinking about reducing their carbon footprints and working to put a stop to the calamity.
We have to arrest the worst pre-existing inequalities before the climate crisis becomes truly devastating, because as our problems accelerate the inequalities will grow exponentially and render any kind of nation-wide co-operation impossible.
For arguments sake, we don’t even have to future-gaze. We can look to current inequalities created by fossil-fuel usage to see how they drive inequality. US school children are suffering from multiple brain-related problems caused by air pollution, with Black, Hispanic and low-income students worst affected. Local authorities, with ever-falling budgets, having spent decades building schools and neighbourhoods for low-income families next to main roads and industrial parks, are only now discovering the consequences.
In hindsight it’s obvious, and we’re seeing similar disparities affecting people of colour in urban areas hit hardest by COVID-19. If people are not provided with clean air and access to a balanced diet, their opportunities are diminished in perpetuity. You try telling someone suffering from the consequences of poor housing, education and dangerous environmental conditions that they should be reducing their emissions and going green – why should they? Their concerns are rightly in the here and now.
We should all be concerned about inequalities in our society, climate change aside. However, whether it’s amongst the international community, or within our own countries, it is the most vulnerable populations who are, and will continue to be, hardest hit as the climate crisis unfolds. These hardships will drive conflicts that will directly undermine our ability to co-operate and solve the climate crisis.
Honestly, it can be hard to feel hopeful. As individuals we might be able to help directly if we take up roles in NGO’s or run for elected office, but realistically most of us will have to take our concerns to the ballot box, and focus on raising awareness in our own networks. One thing is for sure, if we’re in any position of privilege, we have a duty to try. Change starts with us.
If you’re looking for a few small steps you can take to help, please consider the following:
- Follow causes and influencers who are promoting the fight for equality
- When you’re on social media, promote the voices of under-represented groups by sharing and engaging with their content – let them be heard
- Vote, locally and nationally, with equality and climate justice in mind. Make sure your friends and family do too
- Petition your local government and join local action groups on issues you care about
- Find the climate crisis resources that will best help you learn and win people over