The racism that underlies climate change inaction
In recent months, the world’s gaze has landed again and again on a hellish Australian terrain of climate-related disaster. Bushfires ravage some of the planet’s oldest trees in Tasmania. Catastrophic coral bleaching leaves much of the Great Barrier Reef a ghostly white. The first known mammal to be wiped out by global warming was recently identified there.
And yet, there is little to no discussion of climate change in your federal election campaign, which is why many Australian groups are forcefully calling for “Pollution Free Politics”: as in North America, the fossil fuel industry has managed to capture not only the debate and key levers of policy, but also huge government subsidies that help to lock in their civilisation-threatening business model, even as renewables surge around the world.
But responding to the climate crisis is not just a matter of closing coal plants and building more solar arrays. A rapid transition to green energy is also an opportunity to remake our world for the better – to lower emissions in ways that also address historical injustice and inequality, bolster democracy, and prevent the kind of brutal, inhumane future that we are already catching far too many glimpses of, from the treatment of refugees on Manus Island and Nauru to the devastating tragedy in Orlando.
In March, two major peer-reviewed studies warned that sea-level rise could happen significantly faster than previously believed. One of the authors of the first study was James Hansen, perhaps the most respected climate scientist in the world. He warned that, on our current emissions trajectory, we face the “loss of all coastal cities, most of the world’s large cities and all their history” – and not in thousands of years, but as soon as this century.
If we don’t demand radical change we are headed for a whole world of people searching for a home that no longer exists. In countries such as the Marshall Islands and Fiji and Tuvalu, they know that so much sea-level rise is inevitable that their countries likely have no future. But they refuse just to concern themselves with the logistics of relocation, and wouldn’t even if there were safer countries willing to open their borders – a very big if, since climate refugees aren’t currently recognised under international law.
Instead they are actively resisting: blockading Australian coal ships with traditional outrigger canoes, disrupting international climate negotiations with their inconvenient presence, demanding far more aggressive climate action. If there is anything worth celebrating in the Paris agreement signed in April – and sadly, there isn’t enough – it has come about because of this kind of principled action.
For the past three decades, since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was created and climate negotiations began, the refusal of our governments to lower emissions has been accompanied with full awareness of the dangers. And this kind of recklessness would have been functionally impossible without institutional racism, even if only latent. It would have been impossible without orientalism – what Edward Said described in his landmark book of the same name as “disregarding, essentialising, denuding the humanity of another culture, people or geographical region”. It would have been impossible without all the potent tools on offer that allow the powerful to discount the lives of the less powerful. These tools – of ranking the relative value of humans – are what allow the writing off of entire nations and ancient cultures. And they are what allowed for the digging up of all that carbon to begin with.
Why? Because the thing about fossil fuels is that they are so inherently dirty and toxic that they require sacrificial people and places: people whose lungs and bodies can be sacrificed to work in the coalmines, people whose lands and water can be sacrificed to open-pit mining and oil spills. As recently as the 1970s, scientists advising the United States government openly referred to certain parts of the country being designated “national sacrifice areas”. Think of the mountains of Appalachia, blasted off for coalmining – because so-called “mountain-top removal” coalmining is cheaper than digging holes underground. There were theories of othering used to justify the sacrificing of an entire geography: after all, if you are a backwards “hillbilly”, who cares about your hills?
Turning all that coal into electricity required another layer of othering, too: this time for the urban neighbourhoods next door to the power plants and refineries. In North America, these are overwhelmingly communities of colour, black and Latino, forced to carry the toxic burden of our collective addiction to fossil fuels, with markedly higher rates of respiratory illnesses and cancers. It was in fights against this kind of “environmental racism” that the climate justice movement was born.
Fossil fuel sacrifice zones dot the globe. Take the Niger Delta, poisoned with an Exxon Valdez-worth of spilled oil every year, a process Ken Saro-Wiwa, before he was murdered by his government, called “ecological genocide”. The executions of community leaders, he said, were “all for Shell”.
Fossil fuels require sacrifice zones: they always have. And you can’t have a system built on sacrificial places and sacrificial people unless intellectual theories that justify their sacrifice exist and persist: from manifest destiny to terra nullius to orientalism, from backward hillbillies to backward Indians.
Some people insist that it doesn’t have to be this bad. We can clean up resource extraction; we don’t need to do it the way it’s been done in Appalachia or in the Niger Delta. Except that we are running out of cheap and easy ways to get at fossil fuels. This, in turn, is starting to challenge the original Faustian pact of the industrial age: that the heaviest risks would be outsourced, offloaded, onto the other – the periphery abroad and inside our own nations. From fracking the picturesque countryside to oil trains barrelling through major cities, that outsourcing is becoming less and less possible.
There is also an avalanche of evidence that there is no peaceful way to run an economy powered by coal, oil and gas. The trouble is structural. Fossil fuels, unlike renewable forms of energy such as wind and solar, are not widely distributed but highly concentrated in very specific locations, and those locations have a bad habit of being in other people’s countries. Particularly that most potent and precious of fossil fuels: oil. This is why the project of orientalism, of othering Arab and Muslim people, has been the silent partner of our oil dependence from the start – and inextricable, therefore, from the blowback that is climate change. If nations and peoples are regarded as other – exotic, primitive, bloodthirsty, as Said documented in the 1970s – it is far easier to wage wars and stage coups when they get the crazy idea that they should control their own oil in their own interests. The reverberations from such interventions continue to jolt our world, as do the reverberations from the successful burning of all that oil. The Middle East is now squeezed in the pincer of violence caused by fossil fuels, on the one hand, and the impact of burning those fossil fuels on the other.
In his latest book, The Conflict Shoreline, the Israeli architect Eyal Weizman has a groundbreaking take on how these forces are intersecting. The main way we’ve understood the border of the desert in the Middle East and North Africa, he explains, is the so-called “aridity line”, areas where there is on average 200 millimetres of rainfall a year, which has been considered the minimum for growing cereal crops on a large scale without irrigation. He documents that all along the aridity line, you see places marked by drought, water scarcity, scorching temperatures and military conflict – from Libya to Palestine to Syria, to some of the bloodiest battlefields in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Weizman also discovered what he calls an “astounding coincidence”. When you map the targets of Western drone strikes onto the region, you see that “many of these attacks – from South Waziristan through northern Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Iraq, Gaza and Libya – are directly on or close to the 200mm aridity line”.
Just as bombs follow oil, and drones follow drought, so boats follow both: boats filled with refugees fleeing homes on the aridity line ravaged by war and drought. And the same capacity for dehumanising the other that justified the bombs and drones is now being trained on these migrants.
Camps are bulldozed in Calais, thousands of people drown in the Mediterranean, and the Australian government detains survivors of wars and despotic regimes in camps on the remote islands of Nauru and Manus. Conditions are so desperate on Nauru that in April an Iranian migrant died after setting himself on fire to try to draw the world’s attention. Another migrant – a 21-year-old woman from Somalia – set herself on fire a few days later. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull warns that Australians “cannot be misty-eyed about this” and “have to be very clear and determined in our national purpose”.
I thought about Nauru when I read a columnist in a London-based Murdoch paper declaring that it’s time for Britain “to get Australian. Bring on the gunships, force migrants back to their shores and burn the boats.” In another bit of symbolism, Nauru is one of the Pacific Islands very vulnerable to sea-level rise. Its residents, after seeing their homes turned into prisons for others, will very possibly have to migrate themselves.
We need to understand that what is happening on Nauru, and what is happening to it, are expressions of the same logic. A culture that places so little value on black and brown lives that it is willing to let human beings disappear beneath the waves, or set themselves on fire in detention centres, will also be willing to let the countries where black and brown people live disappear beneath the waves, or desiccate in the arid heat. When that happens, theories of human hierarchy – that we must take care of our own first – will be marshalled to rationalise these monstrous decisions. We are making this rationalisation already, if only implicitly. Although climate change will ultimately be an existential threat to all of humanity, in the short term we know that it does discriminate, hitting the poor first and worst.
The most important lesson to take from all this is that there is no way to confront the climate crisis as a technocratic problem, in isolation. It must be seen in the context of austerity and privatisation, of colonialism and militarism, and of the various systems of othering needed to sustain them all. The connections and intersections between them are glaring, and yet so often resistance to them is highly compartmentalised. The anti-austerity people rarely talk about climate change, the climate change people rarely talk about war or occupation.
Overcoming these disconnections – strengthening the threads tying together our various issues and movements – is the most pressing task of anyone concerned with social and economic justice. It is the only way to build a counterpower sufficiently robust to win against the forces protecting the highly profitable but increasingly untenable status quo.
This is an edited extract of the Edward W. Said London Lecture 2016 with a revised introduction. The full, unedited text can be read here.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 25, 2016 as "Climate control". Subscribe here.