Environment

The black and white issue of climate suffering

Those bearing the brunt of climate change catastrophes tend to be forgotten, says Jeremy Williams. Why? Because they’re people of colour

After the storm. Residents of Beira in Mozambique saw their city destroyed by a cyclone in 2019. Image: YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images

In early March of 2019, a storm began brewing in the Indian Ocean. It intensified as it approached land, developed into a full-blown tropical cyclone, and hit Mozambique on the 15th. The city of Beira took the full force of the storm, inundated by a 4.4-metre surge of water that swept all before it. Half a million people were left without power, clean water, roads, communications or medical facilities. An assessment by the Red Cross would conclude that 90 per cent of the city was destroyed.

“We have to start from scratch,” said the mayor, the late Daviz Simango. “Cities have risen from the ashes after world wars in many countries, and Beira too has to rise from the ashes, because it really is destroyed.”

Cyclone Idai was the most expensive storm on record in the region, and the most deadly at 1,297 fatalities. It was a cyclone that had been intensified by climate change, which is known to be increasing the power of storms over the Indian Ocean. That arguably gives Beira a particular place in history: it is the first city to be destroyed by climate change.

And yet, Beira is hardly a household name. Cyclone Idai didn’t even make CNN’s top 100 global news stories of the year. Beira is twinned with Bristol and with Porto. If either of those cities were annihilated by a cyclone, I expect it would have made that top 100.

The case of Cyclone Idai highlights a recurring theme in today’s news reporting: the places bearing the brunt of climate disaster don’t get much media attention. British news readers might not be aware of the true impact of the climate emergency. The floods, the heatwaves, the new temperature records, most of them happen out of sight and out of mind. It’s easy to convince ourselves that climate change isn’t all that urgent, perhaps not an emergency at all.

Of course, some climate disasters do make the news. The 2019/20 fire season in Australia was in the headlines for weeks, in vibrant and traumatic orange. Australia is a place we know better, and with which we have a historic connection. Perhaps people empathise more with English-speaking white people, and find it easier to imagine themselves in a similar situation. But it does warp our sense of who is suffering from a changing climate.

There is a racial injustice to climate change that isn’t often acknowledged, only exacerbated by news imbalances

When Christian Aid polled the British public on which ethnic groups they thought were most affected by climate change, 31 per cent of respondents said that white people were most vulnerable, 10 per cent said Asian, and 15 per cent Black African/Caribbean. These proportions are all wrong, with the damage of climate change vastly tilted towards people of colour. The areas most vulnerable to climate change are Africa, India, small island states and the poorer areas of the Middle East. None of them have majority white populations.

Since climate change has been disproportionately caused by the white regions of the global north, but its negative effects are felt among the Black and brown populations of the global south, there is a racial injustice to climate change that isn’t often acknowledged. That is exacerbated by news imbalances that fail to report on disasters in developing countries. Not only is the north inflicting climate change on others, many of its citizens aren’t even aware of what is happening.

Without international solidarity, structural inequalities are such that outcomes will always default to the historic winners

That may be changing. Concern about climate change has been rising at the same time as concern about racial justice. The killing of George Floyd catapulted the issue into mainstream discussion, prompting many organisations and media outlets to pause and reflect on where they stood on race. That included environmental organisations, many of whom have made statements acknowledging the connection between climate and race. A spate of articles and podcasts have discussed it. Several books are on the way. Young activists such as Vanessa Nakate, Mya-Rose Craig or Leah Thomas are finding new language and telling new stories, and inspiring a generation that see social and environmental justice as inseparable. The influence of this generation, particularly through the Sunrise movement in the US, is apparent in the socially aware climate policies of Joe Biden’s administration.

As the coronavirus pandemic has also demonstrated, global problems need solutions that recognise the reality of global inequality. Without international solidarity, structural inequalities are such that outcomes will always default to the historic winners. White people to the front of the queue for a vaccine. Climate policies written for the benefit of the temperate north, not the more vulnerable regions nearer the equator. This is an important lesson as COP26 approaches, and nations meet again to consider the climate emergency. We must be ready to talk about climate justice, and it begins with understanding where the greatest burden falls. Who is already suffering? Who has contributed the most to the problem? And how do we take responsibility?

Climate Change is Racist: Race, Privilege and the Struggle for Climate Justice by Jeremy Williams is out now (Icon Books, £8.99)

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