The other night I was sitting at home, locked in a conversation about climate change and race. How is this a racial issue, I asked? I realize that the society I live in has pervasive racism, and one should always keep this in mind, but how specifically is climate change worse for nonwhites?
Well, it’s all about first and worst impacts, I was told. People of color are on the front lines. They are the one experiencing the most severe consequences, and therefore failure to act against climate change is environmental racism. The key example is Hurricane Katrina. That was an early impact of global warming, and what was it if it wasn’t a racist horror show? Whose houses were flooded? Who was forced to flee the city? Who were gunned down by police and blocked by white vigilantes along the way? Whaddyamean climate change isn’t about racism?
OK, I replied. I understand the racial geography of New Orleans, and the aftermath of Katrina was every bit the nightmare you say it was. But what about the recent Camp Fire in California? That was an early impact of climate change too, and lots of people were killed. Even more lost everything they had. But from what I could see in the coverage of it, most of the folks out there were white working people or retirees who were priced out of the Bay Area. I guess that makes the vanguard of the movement against climate change a bunch of older white dudes.
And then there was Hurricane Sandy. Think about all those upper middle-class or wealthier white folks who lost all their possessions when the storm washed away their oceanfront properties. This is more evidence, that climate change is mainly about white people, right? People whose big picture window living rooms look right into the maw of sea level rise.
No, it’s not about race. Climate change has worst-and-first effects in a variety of places—fires, storms, coastal inundation. If you want to look for the truly worst off, you’ll find them on small, low-lying islands or in tropical regions facing horrific heatwaves. Yes, the front lines are overrepresented by poor people who can’t afford to escape the waves or air condition themselves against the heat, but all disasters sort us on this scale. Race? Not really. This doesn’t mean we can ignore racism, just that we don’t have to invent it where it’s not a factor. There’s enough of the real stuff to go around.