Over the last several years, worsening and multiplying climate-related disasters — from wildfires to floods — have amplified demands for American lawmakers and power brokers to take steps to blunt the impacts of climate change.
And while images of devastation — most recently from Hurricane Ida — show all types of Americans are being forced to confront climate change in some fashion, stories from the ground in New Orleans reveal what we have long known: The climate calamity isn’t being felt equally.
Specifically, the differing outcomes for whites and nonwhites facing the onslaught of climate crises is increasing calls to address long-standing racial inequalities in housing and infrastructure.
The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, which keeps a global count of the number of people forced to move within their countries because of natural and human-made disasters, found that more than 1.7 million people in the U.S. were displaced by climate-related disasters last year alone.
A study published this year by the Urban Institute found that most of the displaced are people with low incomes and that a large number of them are nonwhite. That same study also found that the U.S. government routinely neglects responsibility for resettling those forced to move because of climate disasters.
“On rare occasions, communities have accessed FEMA funds to help meet perceived demands on city services after people have moved there because of a disaster or an environmental hazard, although these resources are short-lived,” the study found.
The data suggest that America’s climate crisis is largely being hastened by the white and the rich.
That neglect would be offensive enough on its face, but it is worsened by the fact that most of the Black and brown people suffering greatest from climate change aren’t the ones most responsible for climate change.
Studies have shown that the wealthy use far more energy, on average, than less wealthy people. And because race and class are inextricably linked in the U.S., the data suggest that America’s climate crisis is largely being hastened by the white and the rich.
Black and brown activists have taken note, and they’ve made recompense for climate denialism a key part of the racial justice platform. Some lawmakers are taking heed.
Last month, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., shared his draft of a climate change bill that would tax the biggest corporate polluters in America and spend some of the billions to help communities facing climate-related disasters.
“It’s based on a simple but powerful idea that polluters should pay to help clean up the mess they caused,” Van Hollen said in an interview.
As sociologist Mimi Sheller wrote last year in her piece “The case for climate reparations,” there’s a moral impetus for climate restitution “based on the long-term effects of systems of colonial, racial capitalism and the exclusion of Black, Brown and Indigenous people from full citizenship.”
“It is ‘our’ way of life that has put people in harm’s way, both within the United States and beyond our borders,” she added.
Sheller’s prudent use of quotation marks drives home a point made abundantly clear over the last several years: The climate crisis isn’t going away any time soon, and solutions can’t be only forward-thinking — they must consider past wrongs, as well.
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