No, this is not what you think it is. There is no denying that humans are inextricably linked to the changing climate. What I argue against is the lexis of anthropogenic climate change. We know the central problem is ratcheting economic gains, moneyed interests, and exploitation of human and natural resources. “Anthropogenic” masks the differences not only amongst nations in terms of their greenhouse gas emissions, but the spatial differences within those geographies. I, along with other climate theorists and scholars, suggest we rename the cause of climate change to something more reflective, such as “fossil-fueled geo-capitalism.” This theoretical argument may come off as futile or unnecessary, but without a proper framework of causes and effects in which to view climate change, properly aimed solutions will be harder to achieve.
Nations themselves do not pollute, but the industries within them, often owned or demanded by foreigners, are the heaviest emitters. A draft of the 2014 IPCC reported that ¼ of China’s CO2 emissions were directly caused by manufacturing goods for export. A mere 90 producers of oil, natural gas, cement, and coal have contributed to almost two-thirds of worldwide CO2 emissions since the first Industrial Revolution, half of which have been emitted post-1986. Most people are aware of the contributions of the non-renewable energy sector as the main perpetrator of ‘unnatural’ CO2 emissions, but it is important to comprehend the spatial differences in not just “rich v poor.” It is also “producers v consumers,” “and “resource rich v resource poor,” as stated by Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard professor on the history of science. This refocused information leads to more targeted efforts to regulate heavily polluting industries and rethinking U.S. consumption habits, rather than placing the blame exclusively on more recently industrialized nations. Professor Oreskes’ distinction also highlights the extractive characteristics of poor, often previously colonized countries, thus placing more responsibility on economically wealthy nations. Distinguishing industry and consumption from all nations and people is vital to viewing climate change properly.
Even starker are the socioeconomic and geographic disparities of climate change’s effect. This reinforces the idea that climate change is caused by the interest of the wealthy and resourced at the expense of marginalized communities. The assertion of being ‘all in this together’ may create a sense of team effort, but it overshadows the differential impacts.
On a global level, the vulnerability of economically marginal players is most explicit for small island (or “big ocean”) countries. The states are most vulnerable to rising sea levels. In our lifetime it is projected that sea levels could rise an average of five feet, while a mere foot could cover 100 feet inland of coast, thus making small island nations increasingly uninhabitable, As investigated by leading climate change journalists, the Pacific Marshall Islands will disappear if the modeled two degree Celsius increase occurs. This prediction is more and more realistic as individuals experience increasing flooding of their homes. Similarly topographical areas like the Maldives and Kiribati are at high risk due to lack of wealth and infrastructure as well as the low, flat terrain.
Marginalized individuals within nations, even rich nations, face larger obstacles due to climate change and increased intensity of natural disasters. After Katrina, women of color were confronted by extra hurdles when recovering from the natural, as well as federal, disaster. An elderly black woman was targeted and profiled by police for taking shelter in a predominantly white neighborhood, and was jailed and fined. Horrifyingly, a black transgender woman was arrested for using the women’s shower at a Texas evacuation center.
Yet, even before Katrina ever hit land, the socioeconomic inequities placed marginalized people on risky, marginalized lands. The famous lower 9th ward, even 10 years post-Katrina, has visible trauma. It was one of the poorest areas of New Orleans, with one in three residents living under the poverty line. This economic marginalization coincides with the area’s geographic misfortune. It has the lowest elevation in New Orleans, which is bowl-shaped, making a tropical storm uniquely disastrous in those neighborhoods. Poor minorities are at higher risk not only due to the changing climate, but because of larger institutional powers which put them further at risk for physical and economic harm.
There are differences to glean, and “anthropogenic” climate change blinds us to these greater structural issues. We are not all in this together, and definitely not in the same way. People’s lived experiences of climate change vary across physical and political borders, across race, and across gender identity. The togetherness must be replaced with support, awareness, and advocacy, not a mystifying sense of equal contribution and impact.
Nitzan Barlev is a university sophomore studying anthropology. She is currently interested in the politics of human-environment relationships.