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When considering our individual impact on the world in 2020, climate change is central to the discussion. It has to be. To be truly concerned and mindful of our human energy consumption worldwide, people in the Global North must recognise the ways we contribute negatively to those in the Global South. That’s where the concept of “climate privilege” comes in. We may no longer refer to “First” and “Third World” countries, but the economic and environmental problems caused by former colonial countries and empires is still felt today.
To further understand climate privilege, I spoke to Professor Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, a researcher and lecturer at the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary of California Lutheran University, who coined the phrase to explain how class, race and geographical location determine how you’re affected by climate change.
Professor Moe-Lobeda states the urgency of the issue: “The term makes visible what is a foremost moral issue of our time – the people most devastated by climate change are not the people most responsible for it.” Highly industrialised nations are the world’s highest consumers and are overwhelmingly responsible for climate change, with the end result wreaking havoc on already impoverished nations. Those living in these nations are also disproportionately people of colour.
Delving deeper into the term itself, Professor Moe-Lobeda highlights further nuances and our complicity. “Climate privileged societies and sectors can respond to climate change with policies and practices that enable us to survive with some degree of wellbeing within a changing climate, but relegates climate vulnerable people to death or destruction,” she says. In other words, while we prioritise our own environment and surroundings, the effects of industrialisation and hyper-capitalism ripple worldwide.
Referring to both the current environmental activists worldwide and those concerned about the state of the planet, Professor Moe-Lobeda concludes: “We’re not going to be able to address [climate change] until we recognise it as a profound moral problem for anyone who cares about the impact of their lives on other people”.
Here are 50 examples of climate privilege in action:
- Air conditioning and central heating. As the seasons change, to be able to switch on a fan or turn up the radiator for a few hours is the most obvious example of having the privilege to adapt to a changing climate.
- Hyper-consumption. Those with disposable incomes are able to buy non-essential items without thinking about the consequences in terms of the resources used and impact on the environment.
- The factories used to produce everyday items are located primarily in the Global South. Not only are these factories the site of modern day slavery, they contribute to 50 percent of all greenhouse emissions worldwide.
- River dumping. The waste from these factories and associated industries ends up rivers and then the ocean. This waste includes toxic substances like mercury, cryolite and DDT. When the waste ends up in the ocean, it harms and destroys wildlife.
- Oil spills. There have been hundreds of oil spills since records began, with the impact of the second largest – BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 – still being felt today. Killing 11 workers and injuring 17 others, the oil spill erupted in the Gulf of Mexico and spread over 1,300 miles to the shores of Florida and Texas.
- Ten years on from the worst oil spill on US territory, sea life is still dying. This includes deep-sea coral, turtles and spotted sea trout, in addition to the 1,000 dolphins who died in the months following the spill.
- Acid rain. Acid rain is caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Sulphur and nitrogen oxide combine in the earth’s atmosphere and mix with water, oxygen and other chemicals. The resulting acid rain is then swept across the atmosphere, damaging plants, soil and bodies of water.
- Having the choice not to live next to a factory. Houses and flats close to industrial factories in the UK are far cheaper than those in neighbourhoods with less pollution. But the people who live in these lower-income areas breathe higher amounts of harmful toxins. One of the effects of this is occupational asthma.
- The G20 summit. The world’s eight most “powerful” countries – Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the UK and the US – meet every year to discuss the world’s biggest problems and how to solve them. In recent years, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea and Turkey have also been included in the summit. However the G20 does not include adequate representation from African or Central American and Pacific nations, who are among the most affected by climate change.
- African, Central American and Pacific nations are left out of the climate conversation. During G20 meetings, the countries with the highest emissions discuss how to tackle climate change without input from the leaders of climate-vulnerable countries.
- Climate debt. Ecuador-based environmental organisation, Accion Ecologica, describes climate debt as “the debt accumulated by the Northern industrial countries towards the countries and peoples of the South on account of resource plundering, environmental damages and the free occupation of environmental space to deposit wastes, such as greenhouse gases”.
- We need reparations for climate-vulnerable countries.
- Just to be clear, CLIMATE REPARATIONS NOW!
- Climate reparations would take into account how much the Global North contributes to the changing climate globally, and have these countries reduce their CO2 accordingly – instead of having every nation cut down by the same percentage. This would see the UK agree to around a 40 percent deduction in CO2, and a formerly colonised country to 25 percent.
- Getting rid of single-use plastics costs money. Non-reusable plastic packaging and bags are far cheaper than their reusable counterparts. Those on a low income cannot afford to spend a small fortune on reusable products.
- Overfishing. Overfishing poses a serious threat to our oceans. Sea water temperatures are increasing, acidification is occurring and oxygen levels are decreasing. The remaining fish are struggling to survive.
- Cetacean stranding. More commonly known as “beaching”, cetacean stranding is common on the coasts of Australia and New Zealand. When 450 whales became stranded earlier this month, the effort to save them required vast amounts of resources and infrastructure.
- The rainforest. Entire sections of the Amazon have been destroyed through deforestation and along with it, the rare biodiversity living among its trees.
- Logging. A simple one to explain. We need trees to survive, but the illegal timber trade is devastating forests in the Global South.
- The Amazon fire. For the first ten months of 2019, the Amazon rainforest was alight, with fires spreading in Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru.
- Gender reveal parties. Unnecessary and creepy, and directly responsible for the most recent blaze in California.
- If there is a wildfire or natural disaster, those who can afford insurance will probably have it and those of us who can’t, well, we’re fucked, aren’t we?
- America’s incarcerated are forced to become firefighters. In California, where US wildfires have been most intense, prison labour is deployed to help tackle the blazes. After serving his sentence, former prisoner and firefighter Kao Saelee was taken straight to an ICE detention centre and is due to be deported to Laos, a country where his family fled from as refugees.
- To be able to work for a legal wage. Many of these prisoners forced to work extremely long hours putting out wildfires are paid between $2 and $5, and sometimes not at all.
- The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. One of the worst natural disasters in recent memory, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami on Boxing Day had waves 30-metres high, and killed over 230,000 people across Indonesia, Thailand, India and Sri Lanka, among other countries. It cost these countries an estimated $15 billion, leaving people even more vulnerable to future climate disasters.
- Hurricane Katrina. In August 2005, a hurricane swept through New Orleans and caused over 1,800 deaths and $125 billion in damage. As the costliest natural disaster in US history, the response from the Bush Jr. Administration laid bare the country’s vast wealth disparities, with the majority of those affected homeless, unemployed and still struggling to survive 15 years later.
- Flint, Michigan. The water crisis in the American state of Michigan exposes the divide between those who can afford bottled water and those who have to manage with poisonous lead in their water supply.
- Lead paint. In the UK, a lot of older homes use paint made with dangerous levels of lead, as lead-based paint was only banned in 1992. Exposure to lead can result in development problems in children, as well as other health issues. Those who can afford expensive lead-testing kits, or to move or redecorate their homes, are safe. Those who can’t must live with the risks.
- The oil industry. Almost every aspect of this industry negatively impacts the Global South. It has also caused countless conflicts and geopolitical instability worldwide.
- Flying. Across Europe, greenhouse gas emissions from aviation increased by 87 percent between 1990 and 2006. Along with the particles emitted from aircraft engines, high consumption of fuel and noise pollution all contribute to the destruction of the planet.
- Natural disasters in the Caribbean. Many formerly colonised countries in the Caribbean rely on tourism as their main source of income. But due to its geographical location, these islands are more susceptible to natural disasters, with the possibility of hurricanes, storms, earthquakes and landslides threatening residents.
- Wealth. A country’s ability to respond efficiently to climate change is dependent on its wealth. But with the resources of many Caribbean islands stolen by former colonial powers – namely the British Empire – rebuilding after a natural disaster becomes a near impossible task.
- Location. Living in a country or region where you are less likely to experience a natural disaster or be impacted by climate change is climate privilege.
- Freedom to move. Having the financial ability and freedom to move in the event of severe climate change is also a privilege.
- Flood defences. The building costs of flood walls and dams are high, and require extensive construction work. As with many of the points on this list, the difference between saving your home and being left homeless following a climate disaster is a matter of wealth.
- Haiti. Decades of US occupation and imperialism, corrupt regimes, natural disasters causing widespread environmental devastation and health epidemics, have drained Haiti of resources. Susceptible to flooding, the country is unable to rebuild its infrastructure. If climate reparations were paid by both former coloniser France and the US, this would go some way to help.
- Colonialism, imperialism and the transatlantic slave trade. Every country forced to live under this type of rule is now a climate-vulnerable country.
- Building on indigenous land. The building of wind farms on indigenous land has once again benefited those with more power and economic capital.
- Digging on indigenous land. The indigenous population of Canada is currently protesting the construction of a natural gas pipeline through their land.
- Ice caps melting. When we hear about areas to the north of Canada increasing in temperature, we’re presented with photos of polar bears stranded on melting ice caps – but there is a human cost, too. Inuit communities have been living in this area for centuries.
- Access to green space. Maintaining parks in cities costs a lot of money. The wealthier the area, the more likely you are to be able to access green space.
- Earthquakes. Earthquakes caused by fracking are becoming more common. In Oklahoma, there have been reports of a millennium’s worth of earthquakes in two years due to the intensity of the drilling.
- Recycling. Recycling in the Global North has allowed for apathy in the fight for climate equality. You might think you’re “doing your bit for the environment” but in reality, separating your used glass from cardboard is doing the absolute minimum.
- Rubbish islands. Where does all the rubbish that can’t be recycled end up? Following the ban of shipping rubbish to China, the UK currently exports its rubbish to countries including Malaysia, which is already climate-vulnerable with high levels of ocean plastic pollution.
- Illegal mining. Both illegal and legal mining for gold, silver, diamonds (including blood diamonds) and other precious minerals, have destroyed agriculture and caused wars across Central and Western Africa.
- Nuclear testing. Still the root of geopolitical conflict between the US and Iran, nuclear testing causes swathes of land to become uninhabitable, as well as releasing ionizing radiation into the atmosphere.
- Nuclear power-related disasters. The Chernobyl power plant explosion in 1986 is considered the worst in history. Over thirty years later and the radiation emitted from the explosion is still circulating, with the biological effects felt by subsequent generations.
- Choosing to move somewhere else. Those who wish to seek out a new life away from light, noise and air pollution can move to the suburbs, countryside or even abroad.
- Choosing to just ignore everything. To be able to ignore climate change is a privilege in itself. Thinking it won’t affect you because you’re in the Global North is extreme shortsightedness.
- Choosing to deny that climate change exists. Come on, that’s just delusional.