The Racism of Climate Denial

Creating uncertainty about evidence is an injustice

Climate justice demands we acknowledge that the fossil-fuel economy distributes its costs unequally across racial lines. For example, race, not poverty, is correlated with exposure to PM 2.5, a health-damaging particle produced by the burning of fossil fuels. Climate change itself, the planetary effect of fossil-fuel consumption, also affects people unequally across racial lines. When droughts, floods, and storms hit African-American and Latinx communities the government does not help them rebuild, but rather withholds resources and aid by “privatizing recovery.” Yet climate injustice and systemic racism intersect not only in the stark miseries of climate-change disasters. They also overlap in the normalized, complacent climate denial that sustains the fossil-fuel economy.

To see how, consider that the goal of climate denial is to produce uncertainty. Uncertainty in science means a variety of things: ambiguity, imprecision, indeterminism, and so on. In climate science specifically, uncertainty means something like recognizing a range of possibilities. So, for instance, according to the Fifth Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the value of Earth’s climate sensitivity ranges from 2 to 4.5 degrees Celsius, with 3 degrees Celsius being the most likely value. (Climate sensitivity defines how much the Earth’s temperature will rise at equilibrium once the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide doubles.) 2 degrees of warming is, of course, the soft goal of the Paris Agreement. 3 degrees of warming is catastrophic. 4.5 degrees is civilization-ending. The difference between Earth’s temperature during the last Ice Age and now is around 4.5 degrees Celsius, and we are behaving in a way that will raise our planet’s temperature that much again in our lifetimes. In geological terms, we are heating ourselves up cataclysmically fast. Asteroid-impact fast.

The uncertainty of climate sensitivity – its range of possibilities – includes some very bad futures, even leaving aside the futures we haven’t anticipated yet. In finance and the military, this kind of uncertainty is considered a tremendous risk and, as such, something that requires more hedging than would an entirely certain outcome. Which is to say, this kind of uncertainty requires that we attempt to prevent the possible worst-case scenario, an apocalyptic 4.5 degrees Celsius of warming, because it’s a real possibility among other real possibilities. Climate deniers obscure this risk-management sense of uncertainty. Instead they activate the popular connotation of the word and attempt to make people feel doubtful or indecisive; what you feel at a restaurant when you’re uncertain about whether to order, say, the chicken or the fish, and you tell the server to take everyone else’s order and come back to you. The climate deniers want to make the general public feel that we as a global community don’t know what to order. They want us to feel that we don’t know enough about climate change to demand that our governments enact policies that will help transform our energy system and halt global warming. In short, they are trying to deceive us – and their lies are dangerous.

The world’s most vulnerable people are already losing their jobs, losing their homes, and losing their lives to climate change. Yet we continue to burn fossil fuels like there’s no tomorrow, even though we already have the technology that could get us to 80% decarbonization immediately. So why do we not take the experience of the current victims of climate change both as a call for aid now, and as evidence of what climate change will do to us all if we don’t stop burning fossil fuels immediately?

Part of the answer is surely that most stories about climate change are not about people at all, but about places or objects like air or ice. When those stories are released by scientific agencies, media editors don’t understand their significance. For instance, at the end of February it was announced by researchers that the Arctic was 20 degrees Celsius (36F) above normal. Still most media outlets devoted little if any time to the event. Imagine expecting to go outside into 50° Fahrenheit weather, into a brisk Fall day, and instead opening your door and getting hit by a blast of hot summer air! That’s the stuff of horror movies. Yet it’s happening. And it’s happening during the Arctic winter, no less, when the sun never rises over the polar horizon to warm the day. All that heat is excess energy in the climate system circulating where it hasn’t been since before human beings emerged on this planet; before billions of people started to live on coasts that were then submerged under water and will be submerged again if the ice melts. As far as I could tell, all that heat over the ice received no media coverage except from climate journalists, for whose audience the melting Arctic is probably not unexpected news.

But the larger answer to the question of why stories about the effects of climate change on vulnerable communities are not universally understood as evidence for the reality and the danger of climate change is that the dynamic of racial othering still structures political identifications in America. Many white Americans, when they see African Americans forced to move from their homes in New Orleans after Katrina, never to return; or Puerto Ricans still without power and running water almost six months after Maria; or farmers in southern India forced to migrate from their farms in order to stave off starvation; or children in Aleppo dying in a war fomented in part by Syrian climate refugees unable to find employment in cities; even then, many white Americans think “that has nothing to do with me … that’s not going to happen to me.”

Our current political formation – the legacy of white supremacy and colonialism, the ascendance of neoliberal capitalism – is both produced by and reproduces a geographical and conceptual devaluing of racialized bodies. To maintain that devaluing in the face of a planetary crisis requires that those with economic and racial privilege deny that climate change will affect them. The denial is not necessarily avowed, of course, because it’s a symptom of a diseased racial system that says poor, brown, and black lives don’t matter. But if that system were upended, privileged white subjects would understand themselves as implicated in the climate suffering of marginalized communities, both as the cause of that suffering – as the great producers and consumers in the fossil-fuel economy – and as fellow victims of the climate disasters that will come for us all if we do not decarbonize now. In other words, racial justice enables climate truth and climate truth demands racial justice. All anyone has to do to see the evidence – the certain evidence – of climate change is to look at its effects on poor lives, on brown lives, on black lives. Those lives matter. They matter in themselves and they matter as front-line victims on a global battlefield occupied by every last one of us. For in the end, there is only one climate. There is only one planet. And there is only us.

Genevieve Guenther is a part-time Lecturer in Literary Studies at Eugene Lang College, The New School. Follow her on twitter

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