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The other inconvenient truth

We have long known that elderly rich white men are the group most likely to deny the existence of man-made climate change.  And in a statement of the blindingly obvious last week, the Black Lives Matter campaign pointed out that poor Black and Asian people in developing countries (and to a lesser extent in developed countries) are those most likely to suffer the consequences (at least to begin with) of global warming:

“We’re not saying that climate change affects only black people. However, it is communities in the global south that bear the brunt of the consequences of climate change, whether physical – floods, desertification, increased water scarcity and tornadoes – or political: conflict and racist borders. While a tiny elite can fly to and from London City airport, sometimes as a daily commute, this year alone 3,176 migrants have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean, trying to reach safety on the shores of Europe.”

Other claims by the campaign are less defensible.  The claim that Britain is the biggest per capita contributor to global warming is more a statement about Victorian society than an accurate representation of the UK’s current carbon emissions – According to Channel Four’s Fact Checker:

“The European Union has the UK in 42nd place for per capita CO2 emissions in 2013. The US Department of Energy puts us at number 53 in the same year.”

This said, these figures do not include all of the pollution that is generated in other countries to produce all of the consumer goods that predominantly white middle class British people insist on purchasing.

Channel Four Fact Checker also points out that while the claim that the Black British population is 28 percent more likely to be exposed to air pollution is correct, this is largely because that population is much more likely to reside in inner urban housing:

“In most of the UK, the researchers found that most of the difference in exposure to pollution was explained by the fact that ‘there is a greater tendency for ethnic groups to live in more urban areas, which is where the higher emissions are’.

“Urban areas are also where the most economic deprivation is, which raises the question of whether all this is just a complicated way of saying that white British people tend to be better off than ethnic minorities.”

In other words, it is more correct to say that climate change is one of those complex issues whose impact spans class, race and sex divides.  But in choosing to make their protest at London City Airport – “where passengers earn on average £114,000 a year” – campaigners inadvertently stumbled across the other inconvenient truth about climate change – that it is precisely those impoverished communities “like east London’s Newham, where 40% of the population survive on £20,000 or less” that are being asked to shoulder a disproportionate amount of the solutions put forward as the means of keeping global temperatures below 2 degrees of warming.  As American essayist John Michael Greer points out, the failure to combat climate change may owe more to the defence of affluent middle class privilege than to overt racism (although BME populations will undoubtedly bear a disproportionate amount of the costs):

“You may have noticed, dear reader, that nobody in the climate change movement has been out there protesting commercial air travel, and precious few of them are even willing to cut back on their flying time, even though commercial air travel a massive contributor to the problems the movement claims to be fighting. I know of two scientists researching climate change who have pointed out that there’s something just a little bit hypocritical about flying all over the world on jetliners to attend conferences discussing how we all have to decrease our carbon footprint! Their colleagues, needless to say, haven’t listened. Neither has the rest of the climate change movement; like Al Gore, who might as well be their poster child, they keep on racking up their frequent flyer miles.

“On the other hand, climate change activists are eager to shut down coal mining. What’s the most significant difference between coal mining and commercial air travel? Coal mining provides wages for the working poor; commercial air travel provides amenities for the affluent.”

It is no accident that western governments have chosen to front-load the cost of switching from fossil carbon to renewable energy onto the (regressive) electricity bills that disproportionately impact on the poor, rather than pay for them out of (progressive) taxation that would involve the wealthy paying a greater part of the cost.  Nor is it accidental that schemes to subsidise rooftop solar have been priced in a manner that all but excludes the poor.  In the end, while affluent households benefit from generous feed-in tariffs and free electricity when the sun is shining, increasing numbers at the bottom of the income ladder are driven onto expensive pay-as-you-go tariffs.

While Britain’s urban poor – which includes that disproportionate black urban population – suffers the health consequences of air pollution, millions of affluent (largely white) households have enjoyed generous state subsidies and tax breaks on the very diesel cars that are responsible for a large part of the damage.

In June 2016, we reported that Exxon’s CEO had effectively stuck two fingers up at climate campaigners in the firm belief that middle class privilege would trump liberal concerns about the environment:

“The words of Exxon’s Mr [Rex] Tillerson may have seemed strident in the face of a shareholder rebellion, but the data backs up his defence: “Just saying ‘turn the taps off’ is not acceptable to humanity…  The world is going to have to continue using fossil fuels, whether they like it or not.”

This is what all of the evidence is telling us.  Even in environment-friendly Norway, where we have seen the world’s largest increase in electric vehicle use, growing dependence on petroleum is still an issue:

“In 2008 Norway recorded 567 new EV sales in the country. Oil demand that year was 228,000 bpd. In 2015 Norway reported 39,632 new EV sales. Oil demand last year was 234,000 bpd (and increased slightly from the previous year).”

The inconvenient reality is that only when the affluent (largely white) middle classes in the developed countries voluntarily give up their cars, their holidays abroad, their demand for imported consumer goods and their dependence upon industrial agriculture can we hope to have a positive impact on climate change.  And for the foreseeable future, that isn’t going to happen.  Is that racist?  You betcha! … and classist and often sexist too!

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