As bitter winters settle into the subcontinent, Delhi’s air quality dips to cancerous levels. Throughout November, the daily average air quality index (AQI) of the city has ranged from 181 to 469. To lend some perspective to these figures – any AQI reading above 50 can mean debilitating consequences for human health. These consequences are all-encompassing. They can be immediate and short-term (think wheezing, coughing, uneasiness of breath), and, more detrimentally, invisible and long-term (think shortening of life expectancies by seven to ten years).
Delhi’s struggle is not unheard of – especially in the global South, a region that is, rather disproportionately, home to 14 out of the top 20 most polluted cities in the world.
Jeremy Williams’ addresses and dissects this global imbalance in Climate Change is Racist.
Racism with deep roots
According to Williams, the racism of climate change is a story told through two maps – one depicting the highest carbon footprints globally and the other depicting climate vulnerability.
Side-by-side, the maps are essentially photo-negatives of each other. The most polluting countries happen to be the least climate vulnerable – and the inverse holds as well. In other words, there’s a staggering lack of connection between the causes and the consequences of climate change.
In fact, the maps also reveal that countries housing 17 percent of the world’s population contribute to half of global pollution. This “polluter elite” furthers climate change by financing fossil fuels, and thereby delaying the path to a sustainable future. Williams bolsters this insight with data.
He elaborates that countries that consume the most electricity annually tend to be Northern European, North American, and Middle-Eastern countries. The average person in the UK uses more electricity every week (~86 kWh) than the average person in Madagascar does every year (~78 kWh). The statistic is bleaker in other high consumption developed countries, such as Canada (~280 kWh per person weekly) and the United States (~231 kWh per person weekly). The lowest-consuming countries are almost entirely African. With the exception of oil-rich Middle-Eastern countries (eg Saudi Arabia, with ~180 kWh per person weekly), Williams observes a “distinct colour divide” here.
One could argue that the more obvious inequality here is economic and not racial in nature. Williams cautions against this line of thinking, arguing instead that conquest, slavery, and colonialism are complicit in the creation and perpetuation of this inequality. To borrow from author Amitav Ghosh, one ought to look at climate change through the prism of empire. To blame developing countries now for climate change is to write empire out of the narrative.
Free land and free labour provided by colonialism acted as huge subsidies during industrialisation, providing the capital necessary for Western development. Profits from slavery fed into this as well – the Watt steam engine, touted as the most iconic invention of the industrial era, was funded with a loan from a bank financed by West Indies’ plantations.
Williams attributes climate change to structural or systemic racism – a racism which he defines as the scaffolding of policies, institutions, and norms that perpetuate and reinforce racial inequality. This invisible inequality pervades global politico-economic systems without perpetrators, and without intent. Racism without racists, according to sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva.
Williams carefully emphasises the fact that while discriminatory policies may have been legally expunged, their echoes can still be heard, and their long-term consequences still felt. These policies have emerged not out of ignorance and hate, he argues (borrowing from Black activist Ibram X Kendi) but out of self-interest.
These racial divides are pervasive even within high consuming countries. Williams cites the tendency of Western countries to outsource risk to “sacrifice zones” – areas that could host waste, toxic industries, or other extractive operations, and are seen as expendable.
Studies have found that towns inhabited by high proportions of immigrants were more likely to host hazardous waste sites. In Europe, Roma travellers are restricted to sites located near landfills. Mosques in the UK are often on marginalised land, and many are sited near pollution hotspots. In a global economy, these sacrifice zones can look like Beijing and other cities in China, that routinely accept waste disposed of by Western countries.
Williams is sure to mention the intersectionality of climate change’s racism, ie how multiple socio-political identities of an individual can combine, creating unique modes of discrimination. Women in developing countries, for instance, may face worse effects. In 80 percent of all households without running water, women and girls do the water-carrying. Moreover, women and girls (and elderly populations) in developing countries will face the brunt of household air pollution, considering they are likely to spend more time at home – the double-burden of being a woman in a developing country.
Anywhere people experience marginalisation, climate change is likely to make it worse – what Williams calls the “multiplier of exclusion”.
In addition to gender inequalities, Williams briefly explores the fates of a diversity of marginalised groups – indigenous peoples, coastal dwellers, nomadic tribes, children, the elderly, those plagued with other preexisting health conditions, and the LGBTQ community.
For instance, when he observes that temperatures in Mecca will rise such that the human body cannot cope, he makes the unique claim that climate change could culminate in significant cultural losses.
This intersectional approach introduces the concept of climate privilege. This is the privilege of being able to engage in climate denial. Of seeing milder winters and more rainfall as positives. Of brushing aside culpability, because we believe individual actions “won’t make a difference anyway.” And of seeing climate change as an environmental issue and not a human rights issue. This last argument is truly a poignant one.
Williams recalls that when children were asked to create drawings and paintings for a climate change art submission, they drew polar bears and melting ice-caps, trees, forests, and accompanying fauna, foggy air and muddy waters. This point-of-view is something environment organisations are trying to shift away from, instead attempting to place people and communities at the nucleus of climate change awareness. He cites African-American pastor and activist Gerald Durley in stating that climate change ought to be thought of as a civil rights issue, in addition to an environmental one.
The great human, moral struggle of our time
Although his tone is fervent and emphatic – bordering on manifesto-esque – his bold theses are punctuated with a style of writing that is simple, spartan, and casual. These are conscious choices on his part to ensure his book is accessible by as large an audience as possible.
However, this also makes his arguments seem polemical, with select remarks of his coming across as glib, sweeping generalisations. He argues that climate change is mainly caused by people with fair skin, which is challenged by the presence of oil-rich and high-polluting countries in the Middle-East. Williams also correlates racial resentment and reduced agreement with the scientific consensus on climate change. However, one could interpret this as merely a correlation between two political standings, which in any case tend to be conservative.
We think of climate change as an issue in which all global citizens are equally implicated. However, for those with the smallest carbon footprints, climate change is a thing that is imposed on them by others. Climate vulnerabilities are distributed unequally across race and ethnicity, but climate accountability is expected to be uniformly taken charge of.
This book is not a comfortable read, Williams prefaces – neither in its content, nor in the circumstances of its writing. However, it is also a motivating one. Williams concludes his book by saying that in climate conversations, it is wise to avoid blame and talk instead about degrees of accountability and responsibility.
The road ahead is long and winding. Take the Climate Action Tracker, which tracks voluntary pledges made by countries per the 2017 Paris Accords. Out of 197 signatories, only 6 have made these pledges. None of these countries are developed (one of them is India). More than half are in Africa.
However, it’s also equally important to celebrate the victories, few and far between though they may be. The Green New Deal is an excellent starting point for a global leader such as the United States to push for climate action on an international stage. As is their Inflation Reduction Act. Even small, incremental changes made by individuals can create market signals and build political support for wider change. To quote Williams himself, “I cannot be blamed for being privileged, but I can be held responsible for what I do with it.”
Kshirin Rao Eshwara works for Air Pollution Action Group (A-PAG) in Delhi.
Climate Change is Racist, Jeremy Williams, Icon Books.