Climate change is as much a social priority as an environmental concern
Climate change is a universal menace, threatening hardships for everyone. But it’s not an egalitarian menace: everyone will not suffer equally. Perversely, those people and nations least to blame for causing it are most vulnerable to its impacts.
Climate disruption heaps misfortune on the less fortunate, whether in low-lying Bangladesh, the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, or the flood plains around Chehalis, Wash. In the aftermath of climate change, the less you have, the more you’re likely to lose.
“The division of labor among nations,” wrote historian Eduardo Galeano, “is that some specialize in winning and others in losing.” Those left behind in the global economic race will suffer the most from climate change too. Poor nations with tiny carbon footprints are those most threatened. Hundreds of millions of people in Bangladesh, island nations such as the Philippines and Indonesia, and drought-prone Africa will bear the brunt. Their homelands will become uninhabitable; unlike better-off people, they lack the wealth to move or adapt.
In Cascadia, too, climate change promises to widen the gap between economic winners and everyone else. Here it’s working families, particularly in rural areas, who face the worst climate insecurity. Low-income families are most likely to live in flood plains or fire-prone forests. (Or, I should say, if they have a home in the woods, it’s their only home, not a second home). Like Bangladeshi peasants, they’re unlikely to have the means to move to safer ground. What’s more, they are least likely to have health insurance to protect themselves from diseases spreading from the tropics.
Woods workers in British Columbia are already losing jobs from the climate-induced plague of pine beetles laying waste to the forests. Reservation-dwelling Native Americans and First Nations are vulnerable because of their dependence on fisheries, forestry, and agriculture. Immigrant farm laborers — among the poorest workers in Cascadia — also face disproportionate hardship. Dwindling supplies of irrigation water will squeeze harvest jobs, and crop failures from increasingly variable weather will post “not hiring” signs across farm counties.
This epic injustice gives the lie to the argument that stopping climate change is “just” an environmental issue. Indeed, it makes arresting climate change as much a social priority as an environmental one.
And it argues for climate solutions that are not only efficient and effective, but also fair. A certain amount of climate change is already unavoidable. Inevitably, it will punish the blameless. Because climate change takes disproportionately from the poor, we should design our climate solutions to help the poor disproportionately. In other words, climate solutions should make working families and poor nations economically whole.
How to do this? I’ll write about this next time.
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