By Phil Newell
Intersectionality is a big word with a simple meaning: social, economic and political issues are all connected. Climate change is emblematic of this truth. Though it’s usually regarded as a technological or scientific issue, climate change’s disproportionate impact on minority communities makes it an issue of racial inequality. The fact that those who have the fewest resources are the least capable of rebuilding after a disaster renders it an issue of economic inequality. Climate change also disproportionately hurts women, people with disabilities, the elderly and the very young. Furthermore, widespread discrimination mars efforts to study the rise in temperature and advocate for solutions. Dealing with climate change means dealing with inequality and intolerance.
Prejudice undermines science
Last month, Nexus Media reported on a study that found that in the years after Barack Obama took office, white Americans were less likely to see climate change as a serious problem. The finding held even after controlling for partisanship, ideology, education, church attendance and employment. The study further noted a link between racial resentment and climate change denial. While this research leaves many questions unanswered, its findings accord with the experience of many people of color who work on climate change.
Dr. Marshall Shepherd, the second African-American President of the American Meteorological Society (AMS), recounted in Forbes how fellow scientists critical of his work “channeled their disagreement into direct or subtle insults involving my race or credentials.” As Shepherd noted, racially charged attacks are not only a form of harassment, they are distract from the substance of scientific research. Further, such attacks discourage capable young people of color from joining the ranks of climate scientists and meteorologists at precisely the moment when their talents are needed most. Currently, just 2 percent of AMS members are African-American. Even fewer are Hispanic or Native American.
A lack of diversity undermines advocacy
Like scientific bodies, large environmental groups are guilty of a lack of diversity. These organizations are largely bereft of the talents and perspectives of people of color. For years, advocates have focused on threats to polar bears while ignoring the more immediate and disturbing threats that air pollution and climate change pose to marginalized communities. African-American children, for example, die from asthma attacks at ten times the rateof their white peers, and yet Americans are more likely to see climate change as an environmental issue than a public health issue.
University of Michigan sociologist Dorceta Taylor explained how green groups should address this disparity in a recent interview with Yale360. “One of the things they should be doing is stop being so afraid of people of color, and meet them, interact with them, cultivate them, and start recruiting them,” she said. “If all the people I talked to, and knew, and interacted with were black, no one would take me particularly seriously — I have to engage multi-culturally.”
Xenophobia obscures the suffering of climate refugees
It is impossible to ignore the allegations of drugging, water contamination and physical and mental abuse of children at the hands of the American government. The separation of immigrant families will likely have long-term psychological ramifications on these children. This is a crisis of humanity and, like most everything else, it too has a climate connection.
One of the tent cities erected to house children in Texas has faced temperatures upwards of 100 degrees F, offering little respite for the imprisoned. Many of those immigrants are coming from the Dry Corridor of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, where the climate change fueled both drought and deluge, wreaking havoc on subsistence farmers. Combined with years of horrific violence stemming from US policies, climate change is leaving vulnerable populations with little choice but relocation.
As climate change worsens, more and more people will leave their homes to start somewhere new, which is why, as Kate Aronoff of In These Times recently argued, abolishing ICE is good climate policy. As climate change creates more refugees, Aronoff argues that the just response is compassion, not militarism, that we should open our arms and our borders to those who are seeking to escape from an increasingly hostile homeland.
Climate scientist Kate Marvel wrote in Scientific American that adapting to climate change means learning empathy. “Climate change happens in the world we build for it,” she explained. “Climate adaptation requires seawalls and drought-tolerant crops; it also needs institutions, laws, and the basic ability to recognize humanity in others. We’ll need new infrastructure and technology, to be sure, but I doubt we can innovate our way to decency.”
Misogyny and heteronormativity hamper our responses to climate change
Just as racism and xenophobia impair our ability to respond to climate change, so do misogyny and heteronormativity. Recently, the former president of Ireland Mary Robinson argued that “climate change is a man-made problem and must have a feminist solution.” She added, “Feminism doesn’t mean excluding men, it’s about being more inclusive of women and — in this case — acknowledging the role they can play in tackling climate change.”
One woman leading that charge is University of Washington paleoclimatologist Sarah Myhre, who has written about the abuse she has faced as a scientist, a systemic problem that discourages more women from entering the field. “As a student and then a professional scientist, I have been assaulted, raped, harassed, demeaned, belittled, and threatened on the job,” she wrote in The Stranger. “That is right. Every single professional gig that you might read on my CV comes with a litany of backstories of abuse and violence.” Myhre counts herself among numerous women researching climate change who regularly face sexist attacks from climate change deniers.
The LGBTQ community also faces prejudice that will make it difficult to deal with climate disruption. Gay youth are more likely to be homeless than straight youth, and they are more likely to see discrimination at church-run shelters, for example. Ironically, numerous far-right religious leaders have blamed homosexuality for natural disasters.
No issue exists in a vacuum, including climate change. That the issue is so multifaceted may seem overwhelming, but it is good news for climate advocates. It means they can fight on more fronts and and with more allies. That’s a deal they should be happy to take.
Phil Newell writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.