Climate change and structural racism

Climate change caused by the build-up of greenhouse gases (GHG) from burning fossil fuels and other human activities is a global catastrophe. These gases form a blanket in the atmosphere, resulting in warming temperatures and increased extreme weather events such as flooding, droughts and wildfires, impacting all life on Earth. Jeremy Williams (see our podcast conversation), an environmental writer and campaigner, put two maps side-by-side showing carbon emissions and impacts. It became apparent to him that people most affected by climate change are those who have contributed the least to the problem. These people live in poorer countries and are generally people of colour. People who have contributed the most live in wealthier, predominantly white countries. Thus, there is a clear rich-poor divide and a colour divide, meaning climate change and structural racism are connected.

Climate change complexity

global warming, burning earth, burning-1494965.jpg

When I started to examine climate change for The Owl Hoot podcast and blog, I quickly realised how complex a challenge it is to deal with.  Fossil fuels have powered our lives massively since the industrial revolution in the 1700s.  From initially powering factories through steam engines, fossil fuels now predominate in keeping our homes warm or cool, power all modern forms of transport (cars, trucks, trains, planes and ships) and produce the plastic entrenched in our everyday lives.  What blew my mind was the connections between climate change and sustainability and biodiversity and pollution.  For example, a throw-away culture means more burning of fossil fuels to produce more stuff creating more emissions, using more land – depleting biodiversity and generating more air pollution from the additional transport.  Then throw into the mix the realisation of the unevenly distributed environmental consequences, meaning those already marginalised through such identification as race, gender, sexuality and disability will be more adversely affected (this is known as intersectional environmentalism).  A lot is going on.

In 2015, Oxfam released a report indicating the richest 10% of the population is responsible for about half of all carbon emissions.  These populations are mostly located in the global north (nations having a relatively high level of economic and industrial development) and are responsible for 92% of emissions.  In light of these stark numbers against the historical background of the global north utilising resources in the global south for development, it is not surprising conversations about reparations are becoming more frequent.  In a just society, it is fair for those responsible to provide monetary compensation to those least responsible when they are adversely affected by climate change events, such as flooding.

How does racism factor?

As Jeremy pointed out, defining racism is essential in illuminating its connection with climate change.  There are three types of racism:

  1. Individual – a person’s unfair or harmful thoughts and actions towards another are based on the other’s race.
  2. Institutional – the processes and policies within an organisation are unfair or harmful towards people based on race.
  3. Structural – the laws, rules and policies within a society lead to unfairness or harm to those of a particular race.

It is structural racism that connects race to climate change.  No single person or group set about to target people of colour.  However, past decisions made by white people have led to a structure where people of colour are most negatively impacted by climate change.  

people of varying race


When I read Jeremy’s book, Climate Change is Racist, I found thinking about intent created greater understanding.  I am a white female and like to think I’m not racist and treat everyone I have contact with fairly and with no racial bias.  As much as I intend not to be racist, I recognise the sphere in which I have lived was not always free from racial bias.  I grew up in a predominantly white area, only becoming part of a community diverse in backgrounds and colour when I went to college.  Television during my formative years in the 70s and 80s did not reflect an equally fair representation of people of colour; I cannot remember any education pertaining to colonialism or inequality.  I tell you this as I recognise (as uncomfortable as it is to admit) that I may inadvertently express racial bias.  I do not intend to, but I’m open to the possibility that I might.  Climate change is similar; white people did not purposefully set out to cause people of colour to suffer from the consequences of climate change.  White people burnt fossil fuels to enhance their lives but unintentionally have made the lives of those of colour worse.

Why does it matter?

It matters because all people should have their basic needs met – food, water, shelter and connection to others.  Surely we want to live in a world where everyone matters equally irrespective of gender, race, religion and any other difference for that matter.  It’s imperative to account for all these factors to ensure a just transition to net zero.