The dire situation facing the planet needs no introduction. With global warming, plastic pollution, and loss of biodiversity at critical levels, it is clear that the environmental crisis is the biggest challenge we face today. The efforts to resist the slow collapse of our Earth’s life support systems, the naturally self-replenishing processes that allow Earth to sustain life, span all ranges of human activity – almost as extensively as the activities that lead to their destruction. Climate change and its responses have embedded themselves into all professions and produced a new paradigm by which we function as a society and as a species. And yet, while climate change is an issue faced by all of humanity, there are clear disparities in which those who emit the least face the harshest consequences.
On a global level, the numbers are stark and the mechanisms fairly easy to comprehend. “The global south is disproportionately affected by the effects of climate change,” is endlessly cited in the university space, and understanding why is not difficult: the wealth of rural countries is often tied to their natural resources which are particularly sensitive to environmental changes such as extremes like flooding and desertification. A clear picture is seen when looking at the difference in emissions. According to Christian Aid’s 2019 study the lowest emitting country per capita, Burundi, also has its highest Climate & Food Vulnerability Index. The second lowest emitter, the DRC, has the second highest index. The UK and the USA, with joint third lowest on the Vulnerability Index, emit 212 and 583 times Burundi per capita.
There also comes the issue of exporting emissions. While the UK will gladly report their steadily decreasing emissions over the last few decades, this is no indication that the UK is acting more sustainably. Instead, the Committee on Climate Change has reported that net UK emissions jumped 10% from 1993 to 2013 but with the UK exporting emissions to China rather than dealing with the problems at home. A look at the industrial trends in both countries confirms this and makes the UK the fifth largest importer of Chinese emissions after the US, Japan, Hong Kong and Germany and the G7’s largest importer per capita. One obvious way to hardcode the ‘intersection of environmentalism’ into policy is to demonstrate responsibility for this emissions leakage. Only when all countries account for their entire embodied energies can the voluntary international cooperation outlined by Article 6 of the Paris Agreement begin to make sense.
Domestically, the inequities of climate change are no different. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation show that, in terms of overall CO2 emissions, the UK’s richest 10% emit three times more than the poorest tenth. In car travel, this proportion is eight times and for aviation, it’s nine. Indeed, households above the average of £29,400 disposable income still emitted double the poorest 10%. The disproportionate effects remain the same on an ethnicity basis. In the USA, the American Journal of Public Health looked at the differences in the burden of particulate matter emissions versus race and class backgrounds. They concluded that disparities on a socioeconomic basis were significantly outweighed by differences in ethnicity (particularly white and black).
Ultimately, despite scientific sirens, how we treat the environment comes down to externalities such as finance and industry. For the household, environmental health has quickly descended into another form of neglect and mistreatment embedded in British class inequality. There is a huge disparity in those who cannot emit, and those who do not care how much they emit. A progressive emissions tax with a lower rate for lower emitters and then exponential increases for higher emitting and typically richer households may be one solution. This would range across all property, transport, and consumption under the household name.
For countries, accountability is key. Whether an export of our carbon burden to China, or simply non-recyclable waste sent to Malaysia under the pretext of recycling trade, the UK, US and other world powers such as the UAE and Australia need to account for their own emissions and not lay the burden of improvement on others. A strongman arena averse to altruistic cooperation such as the one today is no fit for the environmental crisis.
Professor Mike Hulme draws a line between climate change and Climate Change. Climate change describes the break-neck increase in global temperatures caused by the increase in greenhouse gas emissions since the Industrial Revolution, and the changes in natural systems that arise from this. Climate Change is the global crisis that defines our age, a chance to take a moment of introspection as a species on how we structure societies and economies, take priorities, and treat cultures.
The catastrophic wildfires over the last year in both Brazil and Australia should serve as a moment of reflection in this regard. Both countries have a history of hijacking and abusing Article 6 of the Paris Accords for their own financial benefit. And yet, it is the indigenous people of these nations who suffer a catastrophic impact to their lifestyle, lands and culture. This shows that even the concept of ‘intersectionality in environmentalism’ is too weak to capture the challenges that environmentalism has in regard to every historical trend and inequality that we still grapple with today.