Columnist Russ Vernon-Jones: Climate change devastation an enormous racial inequity

  • Protesters march to demand action on climate change, on the streets in Lagos, Nigeria, in 2019. AP

Monday, July 25, 2022

A year ago, I attended an international webinar on Zoom about the effects of climate change around the world. At one point I found myself paired with a friendly, but upset, woman in Nigeria.

To protect her confidentiality I’ll call her Isioma. Isioma told me that the once consistent, dependable seasonal rains in her part of Nigeria have become so irregular as a result of climate change that farmers’ crops are often failing. The cost of food has soared, increasing numbers of people don’t have enough to eat, and thousands are displaced from their homes every year by the effects of climate change.

I’d read about these things in news reports, but it was a new experience for me to be sitting in the comfort of my home in Amherst connecting with this woman, while she was in Nigeria experiencing climate disaster firsthand. It was painful to hear her experiences.

Even though I had only known her for a few minutes, I found myself caring about her and my heart opening to her and her fellow Nigerians.

I began to think about the fact that my country, the United States, has played a big role in causing the suffering being experienced around her. Cumulatively, the U.S. has emitted more climate change-causing greenhouse gases than any other nation. Just as I was pondering the responsibility of the U.S., she said to me, “I don’t think we can stop climate change without doing something about racism. The wealthy white nations don’t care what happens to us. It’s racism that makes them not care.”

Even though I’ve made similar statements myself, it cut right to my core to hear it directly from her. She was not blaming me individually. If anything, she was inviting me to join her in trying to solve the climate crisis.

Racism is often a matter of white people pursuing their own comfort, wealth or power and disregarding the pain, suffering and death their actions cause “people of the global majority” (a newly recommended term for “people of color”). In the U.S. this has been true of slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, mass incarceration and more.

The climate situation is an example of this racist dynamic. The wealthy, predominately white nations, especially the U.S. and those in Europe, have gotten rich burning fossil fuels and caused a global climate crisis in which people of the global majority nations are suffering a disproportionately large share of the devastation. We are now experiencing some direct effects of climate change in the U.S., but the worst catastrophic storms, intense heat waves, agricultural disruption, sea level rise, and increase in climate refugees are occurring in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Oceania.

The U.S. continues to emit huge amounts of greenhouse gases every day. Those emissions worsen the climate crisis everywhere, but especially in developing nations. Crops are failing in many African nations; in India during a recent three-month heat wave, the temperature went over 120°F; and in the Maldives some of the nation’s islands are already under water as a result of rising sea levels.

While we may not intend to be racist, our continued failure to transition quickly to renewable energy, to electric transportation, to vastly more efficient buildings, and to take all the other steps that would reduce our carbon footprints from our homes, cities and towns and nation, has a racist effect.

I believe Isioma’s point was that racism keeps many white people in the U.S. from being aware enough and caring enough about the effects of our climate inaction on people of the global majority in Africa. As a country, we don’t allow the impact of climate change on people in Nigeria, for instance, to drive us to take bold action to stop climate change.

I was already a dedicated climate activist before I talked with Isioma, but remembering her and that conversation keeps me fired up and continues to renew my commitment.

Within the U.S., people of the global majority experience the worst effects of climate change as well. Despite the greater new coverage given to prosperous white people losing homes in forest fires, much more often it’s people of the global majority who are affected — poor Indigenous people forced to move from their homes as the sea level rises in Louisiana; Indigenous Alaskans forced to relocate their villages as ice melts in the Arctic; and Black and brown people suffering from extreme heat and air pollution from fossil fuels in our urban areas.

I’m aware that writing about racism causes some white people to feel guilty, some to feel defensive, and some to turn away. Even those of us who are deeply committed to racial justice can feel powerless in this situation. What I want to suggest is that this is an opportunity for all of us to open our hearts, to affirm our connection with humans all over the world, and to allow the climate crisis to bring us together in a common cause.

By itself, this won’t of course end climate change, but perhaps open-hearted caring is a key step. Perhaps opening our hearts can provide a foundation for us to each be more active and speak out in favor of bold climate action, based on caring about everyone everywhere.

Russ Vernon-Jones of Amherst was principal of Fort River School for 18 years and is a member of the Steering Committee of Climate Action Now (CAN). The views expressed here are his own. He can be reached at russvj@gmail.com. He blogs regularly on climate justice at russvernonjones.org.