Climate change discriminates: efforts to combat it should not
Illustration: Pearl Onyeneke

Climate change is one of the most pressing issues of our generation. Sea levels are rising at an unprecedented rate, hurricanes are growing in frequency and intensity, and persistent warm weather coupled with forest fires is melting Arctic permafrost. The list is endless. Yet whilst climate change is considered a ‘global’ issue, its impact on minority communities is often ignored, even though they are among the worst affected. Failure to address the consequences on minorities is only exacerbating their suffering. As climate change becomes more prominent in the media, we are presented with an opportunity to challenge the discrimination that features in government planning.

Temperature analysis conducted at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) found that average global temperature has increased by just over 1°C since 1880. Two thirds of this warming has occurred in the past 45 years. Current anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are the highest in history, enhancing the natural greenhouse effect that warms the planet. In its 2014 Synthesis Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states: “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished and sea level has risen”.

Whilst the climate has undoubtedly fluctuated over time, climate change can also trigger sudden, often place-specific events, the impact of which can persist for years or even decades. Wildfires, hurricanes and droughts are a harsh reality for communities around the world. According to the Global Climate Risk Index, more than half a million people lost their lives due to extreme weather between 1998 and 2017. Poorer developing countries – including Myanmar, Dominica and Honduras – experienced the most fatalities. In other words, climate change is creating unprecedented problems for those already burdened by poverty and oppression.

The Black Lives Matter movement highlights the systemic racism that is deeply embedded in American society. In any crisis, it is the poor and vulnerable that suffer the most. One only has to look at the statistics of the COVID-19 pandemic to see that black and other minority groups are dying at disproportionately higher rates. Climate change is no different.

Minority groups are often excluded from discussions on climate change. They are disadvantaged in both preparation for and in the immediate aftermath of climate-related events. A tendency to live in areas that are more exposed and susceptible to the impacts of climate change means that minority groups are often most vulnerable. Minorities are inadequately represented in national politics, which only exacerbates the problems they face. Long-established policies, such as unequal educational opportunities and workplace discrimination, increase the burden placed on black communities by climate change.

That ethnic minorities are most affected by climate change is not a new idea. The IPCC’s 2007 impacts report states: “Hardships from extreme events disproportionately affect those who are socially and economically disadvantaged, especially the poor and indigenous peoples of North America”. 

It is evident that the black community was disproportionately affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It was the costliest tropical storm to have struck the US, causing $125 billion in damage. Levee failures heavily affected black communities located in the low-lying, less protected areas of New Orleans. Of the neighbourhoods that were flooded, black and other minority homes made up 58%. Within the city itself, this figure rises to 80%. Pre-existing power relations and unequal access to resources meant that white communities could evacuate quicker than their black counterparts. Even plans for the redevelopment of New Orleans privileged white neighbourhoods. 

It is not just tropical storms that disproportionately affect black communities. Data compiled by the National Interagency Fire Centre (NIFC) indicates that since 2000, the US has seen an average of 71,300 wildfires each year, burning an average of 6.9 million acres of land annually. Non-white communities are less able to respond and adapt to wildfires, leaving them over 50% more vulnerable than white Americans. These minority groups should be prioritised in management decisions in order to reduce the wildfire threat more effectively. While some services are already in place to increase the adaptive capacity of communities, socially and economically disadvantaged individuals are less likely to participate. A lack of inclusivity in mitigation strategies only harms those who are already vulnerable.

The World Health Organization estimates that 55 million people are impacted by droughts each year. Approximately 700 million people are at risk of displacement as a result of drought by 2030. Droughts not only increase the risk of disease, but threaten to disrupt global food supply. Soil is now being lost at a quicker rate than it is forming. Nearly a billion people globally experience hunger, and food demand is expected to rise 70% by 2050

Food shortages are more likely to affect poorer communities – those who are unable to afford the rising costs of produce – than richer ones. This increases the burden of those already in poverty, who may be forced to leave their homes and migrate to other countries. With one-third of all food being wasted, a dramatic shift in consumer behaviour is necessary if food is to be redistributed to those who are severely malnourished. 

In the United States, black people are more likely to live in areas affected by toxic waste pollution. It is estimated that 70% of the country’s contaminated waste sites are located near low-income housing; localities occupied by a high percentage of black people. Global warming intensifies the health impacts of pollution in these communities, leaving them more at risk of developing cancer, as well as asthma and heart disease. But just as the Black Lives Matter movement is not restricted to America, climate and racial injustices can be seen around the world.

In Latin America, the most unequal region in the world, issues concerning indigenous land are central to racial and environmental justice concerns. Changing rainfall patterns in Nicaragua as a result of climate change have wiped out crops and left its indigenous peoples prone to extinction. Yet, indigenous peoples tend to be better organised than other minority groups and are therefore presented with opportunities to immerse themselves into climate change discussions. However, stresses in addition to climate change challenge their adaptive capacity and increase vulnerability. The current rate of progress is far too slow.

The Inuit are a group of indigenous peoples inhabiting the Arctic regions of Greenland, Canada and Alaska. In the past, they have expressed concern over climate change by filing a legal petition against the US government. They claimed that the lack of control over greenhouse gas emissions was threatening livelihoods in the Arctic, and that the state should therefore take responsibility and limit its emissions. That the case was largely unsuccessful is a reflection of the inability of minorities to establish a strong foothold in the climate change community. What does this demonstrate but the blatant ignorance of those in power towards the impacts of climate change on minorities?

If we are to stop temperatures from rising more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century, anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced. This requires climate change research diverting its attention away from the key economic sectors and instead focusing on the people and the community. Mitigation and adaptation are most effective at a local scale, but the lack of financial resources and technical expertise of minority communities limits their ability to act. Government support is necessary, and there is only so much that can be done without it. Our window to avoid catastrophe is closing rapidly. 

The disproportionate impact of climate change on minority groups has cast a new light on the discrimination that remains deeply embedded within political institutions. Climate hazards continue to play havoc with the lives of minorities. If the predictions made by the IPCC on the state of the climate by the end of the century are accurate, UN agencies and NGOs – with their non-discriminatory guidelines – will be vital to the survival of many minorities and indigenous peoples.

Climate change is not a distant threat. And while it discriminates, the efforts to combat it must not.