Is the Environmental Crisis Built on Systemic Racism..?

You’re more likely to live next to a waste incinerator in the UK if you’re black compared to if you’re white, and thus more likely to be breathing in toxic fumes.

The same trend is also true globally: ‘people of colour’ living in the global south are more likely to suffer environmental harms associated with climate changed compared to the majority white populations of the global north.

This is according to a recent report: Confronting Injustice: Racism and the Environmental Emergency jointly published in 2022 by Greenpeace and The RunnyMede Trust.

This report makes the very dramatic claim the current environmental crisis is based on a history of systemic racism rooted in Colonialism and in this post I summarise this report and suggest some limitations of it.

The Environmental Crisis is Built on Systemic Racism…

(Quite a claim!)

The report notes that it is mainly countries in the global south – mainly Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Africa – which have to bear the costs of global warming. It is these poorer countries which suffer economic setbacks because of increased sea level rises flooding land and destructive ‘extreme weather events’ such as cyclones. The report estimates that Mozambique, in Southern Africa suffered more than $3 Billion of environmental damages in 2019, for example.

Another dimension of ‘environmental racism’ is how the mainstream media under-reports man-made environmental humanitarian disasters in the global south compared to ‘white victories’ such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos space flight programmes….

And one further example lies in how Indigenous activists lives are put in danger.

Colonialism, Extractivism and Racism

The report also highlights three case studies of how colonial powers set up in developing countries (then simply their colonies) and systematically went about displacing indigenous peoples in order to extract resources for profit.

The three examples provided are Shell extracting Oil in Nigeria, and the displacement of the Ogoni people; the destruction of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil and the establishment of meat and soy production and also the establishment of industrial scale fishing in Western Africa which has ruined local communities which used to rely on small scale fishing.

The report also covers the waste aspect of Environmental Racism – countries such as the UK tend to ship their toxic waste to poorer countries who often have lower pollution standards – so poor people end up recycling metal from plastic by burning the plastic for example….

Find out More…

There is more in the report such as how environmental racism works in the UK and how we can tackle climate change by simultaneously tackling racism in society, and I recommend you give it read: Confronting Injustice: Racism and the Environmental Emergency.

Relevance to A-Level Sociology

This contemporary report is clearly relevant to the Environment topic within the Global Development module, and you will also find lots of supporting case studies which support Dependency Theory.

In terms of social theory, this is a great contemporary example of ‘grand theorising’ – there’s nothing postmodern about this, and in fact reports leading to theorising such as this implicitly criticise the concept of postmodernity.

Global Warming and the threat to Human Development

This post explores the extent to which Global Warming poses a threat to continued social and economic development.

According to the latest data from Climate.gov global warming is currently causing sea levels to rise by 0.3 centimetres a year, which means that sea levels may have risen by up to 2.5 metres by 2100.  

A recent report by Climate Central (2019) suggests that 300 million people live in areas that will be subject to severe flooding due to climate change, China and Bangladesh have the most people living in at-risk areas.

The Polynesian Island of Tuvalu, population 11 000, is on the frontline of Sea Level Rise – located in the Pacific Ocean this is a thin slip of an Island where the residents are now struggling to survive because of rising sea levels. This Guardian article (2019) takes an in-depth look the problems the residents face. There is a very real chance all of these people could end up being climate change refugees within the next decade. NB the United Nations is aware of their plight, but it’s difficult to see what we can do that is practical.  

This documentary from 60 Minutes Australia (2019) explores the rapid disappearance of parts of the Solomon Islands, where sea levels have increased by up to 15 centimetres in the last 20 years:

From a research methods perspective this is interesting as one researcher used old photos to compare where some of the islands used to be compared to their reduced sizes today; and there are also interviews with people who grew up on the islands – some of the places they used to picnic as kids are now gone forever, completely under water!

The Global Climate Risk Index is a useful broader source than the above – it focuses more on all extreme weather events, so not just flooding (also droughts and extreme weather events).

NB – just to reiterate that the latest modelling suggests that if anything sea levels are rising FASTER than previously projected, so these problems are set to get worse!

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