Recognizing Carbon Privilege
It is an uncomfortable truth that the world's poorest people are least responsible for climate change yet most threatened by its impacts. In the last 30 years, over half of the carbon emissions added to the atmosphere were caused by the wealthiest 10% of the global population, and the wealthiest 1% contributed more than twice the amount of emissions as the poorest 50%.
Carbon privilege is a fancy phrase to describe a tragic reality: one stratum of society irresponsibly depleting the global carbon budget and simultaneously slowing poverty reduction rates. Those without carbon privilege already struggle with the consequences. It is a vicious cycle. The rise of extreme weather events causes fatalities, property destruction, food insecurity. It threatens access to shelter, healthcare, and education for those already trapped in poverty, which is exacerbated by climate change and makes it harder for them to escape its ravages.
"The World Bank's recent Groundswell Part II report modeled the anticipated climate-related displacement the world should expect. The figure reported a staggering 216 million people could be displaced by climate change by 2050."
World Bank: The Human Toll of Climate Change - Taking Action on Internal Climate Migration, September 13, 2021.
Protections for Climate Migrants
Across the globe, the systems designed to protect the least fortunate have yet to catch up to this new climate caste system.
Millions of people are displaced due to droughts, wildfires, hurricanes, and flooding -- situations that will only become worse and more frequent. Yet climate migrants are not recognized or protected by international treaties as such agreements were developed before the impacts of climate change were wholly understood. Existing treaties are legal frameworks designed to support those displaced by conflict and persecution, but fail to address that the burning of fossil fuels accelerates climate disaster -- a slow violence assaulting the poor and vulnerable.
According to a model in the World Bank's recent Groundswell Part II report, a staggering 216 million people could be displaced by climate change by 2050. Many of these people will be forced to cross borders and will become climate migrants in need of humanitarian protection. Currently, an estimated 80 million people (1% of the global population, or 1 in 95 people) are displaced from their homes due to conflict, persecution, and climate change. The world is already struggling to support this number. For migrants, survival is political, and with many countries enforcing increasingly strict visa laws, survival is thwarted by bureaucracy and international bargaining. This means climate migrants face an additional battle -- the recognition as refugees deserving protection.
"...as desirable neighborhoods are threatened by climate events, wealthier people will relocate to previously less desirable areas inhabited by immigrant communities and people of color."
Amanpour and Company (PBS): The Great Climate Migration Has Begun, May 24, 2021.
Marginalized people all over the world are experiencing more significant hardships. According to the UN, women and children are 14 times more likely to die from climate-related disasters. In the US, the NAACP and Clean Air Task Force reported that people of color are 75% more likely to live in lower-income communities that border oil and gas refineries than white people. The study measured that, on average, Black Americans breathe air that is 40% more polluted than white Americans.
Harvard University researchers coined the term "climate gentrification" in a study about the impacts of rising sea levels and flooding in relation to real estate in Miami. It means that as desirable neighborhoods are threatened by climate events, wealthier people will relocate to previously less desirable areas inhabited by immigrant communities and people of color. This process leads to displacement as living costs rise and marginalized people are forced out -- often to areas of greater climate risk. This is already happening in affected countries globally.
"Current systems and initiatives are at odds with the opportunities available to people living in poverty, yet these demographics will be impacted hardest by disaster."
WW0: Facebook Live conversation on national security, climate migration and the climate crisis (September 10, 2020).
The Unseen Privilege of Greener Choices
Socioeconomic inequality has demonstrated that environmental concern is rarely recognized as a privilege although the greener option is almost always the more expensive one. For example, developing countries rely on cheaper fossil fuels for energy. In wealthier countries, the resistance to carbon reduction is often caused by political reluctance to disrupt market structures dominated by fossil fuels and by the demand for less expensive energy bills. The French "yellow vest" protests surrounding President Macron's 2018 decision to drive up fuel costs is an example of how enforcing needed change can increase the perception of poverty risk and influence political outcomes. It was an especially tragic example: many of the people marching against climate action were the ones most likely to suffer climate change's impacts.
Current systems and initiatives are at odds with the opportunities available to people living in poverty, yet these demographics will be impacted hardest by disaster. For those living paycheck to paycheck -- buying sustainable brands, opting for an EV, and investing in energy-efficient home solutions are simply not realistic options. It makes a "just transition" even more important than ever.
"Climate change is an issue of both human rights and social justice. But until carbon privilege is recognized and addressed, human suffering will only increase."
Reuters: Carbon inequality - how our spending drives climate change, January 14, 2021.
Combat Carbon Privilege, Invest in Carbon Equality
The fossil fuel industry is the most profitable industry of all time, so switching to sustainable options presents problems that are political, economic, and technological. One challenge is climate variability, specifically in relation to a reliance on solar and wind power. Due to weather inconsistencies, backup power is needed, but cycling power plants up and down causes even more pollution.
Diverse portfolios of sustainable energy solutions to combat this problem require huge global investments from governments, and represent a massive opportunity to lower fuel bills and create millions of jobs. Weighed against the costs of climate-related damages and subsidizing climate migrants, investing further into these initiatives now could prevent economic disaster in the future.
The systems preventing the global adoption of environmentally sustainable solutions must be addressed. Providing a living wage and implementing progressive yet fair tax systems would encourage more opportunity for people to embrace green options. In turn, this would increase market demand and lower costs for sustainable brands, allowing them to lead consumer industries.
Climate change is an issue of both human rights and social justice. But until carbon privilege is recognized and addressed, human suffering will only increase. With privilege comes power, and those accelerating the problems also have the ability to promote the most positive change.