Is climate change racist?

Some produce the climate catastrophe, others pay for it – this assumption describes the term "climate racism". Where does it come from and what is it?

When a toxic waste dump was to be built in Warren County, North Carolina, in 1982, the term "environmental racism" first came up – at least in a way that generated media coverage. A protester, the African-American civil rights activist Benjamin Chavis, is said to have introduced it. Warren County was one of the poorest counties in the state at the time, with two-thirds of the population being African American*s. Many of them resisted the landfill with demos, sit-ins and roadblocks, with over 500 protesters arrested in the process. The plant was built anyway. Shortly afterwards, PCBs, a building material dumped there, were banned worldwide – because they are carcinogenic and harmful to genetic material.

Those with little money are on average more affected by environmental risks

Since then, several studies have shown that People of Color (PoC) in the U.S. are exposed to more environmental risks than white people – in part because dirty industries are more often placed in regions where PoC are the primary residents. In 2018, an Environmental Protection Agency study found that blacks in the U.S. are exposed to an average of 1.5 times as much particulate matter as whites – Hispanics 1.2 times as much.



In the coastal region of Bangladesh, cyclones caused by climate change regularly destroy entire villages. To rebuild, residents process old bricks to make new building material

Low-income people are also more affected by environmental risks: for example, they are exposed to 1.3 times as much particulate matter as people above the poverty line. So when environmental racism is mentioned, class distinctions are usually implied. The phenomena go hand in hand – and not only in the U.S.: In Germany, too, recent studies show that a lower social status goes hand in hand with a higher environmental impact.

While Greta Thunberg is the talk of the town, young activists of color get very little media attention – and there are a few to be had. Twelve-year-old Amariyanna Copeny, for example, nicknamed "Little Miss Flint". The drinking water in her hometown of Flint, Michigan, has been contaminated by lead. Since 2014, 100.000 people exposed to toxins, more than half of them PoC. Little Miss Flint" has not yet made it into the German-language media.

The global economy creates social inequalities that often run along formerly colonial lines: Western companies produce cheaply in countries that were once colonially exploited and now have fragile state structures. They take advantage of the often lower environmental protection standards there, sometimes polluting nature and not infrequently ignoring the needs of the. For example, this was the case at a Unilever thermometer factory in southern India. Toxic mercury waste was released into the ground there from 1984 to 2001. 45 factory workers* reported to have died from toxins. Others suffered kidney ailments, memory loss and miscarriages. It took 15 years for the company to meet the demands of the 591 people affected and compensate them; the exact amount is not known

Originally, the discussion of environmental racism was about which people in their immediate environment are exposed to environmental risks and which are not. Climate change has now added a new dimension to the whole thing because its causes and consequences are unevenly distributed across the planet: Some countries, for example Honduras, Haiti or Myanmar are much more vulnerable to the effects of climate change – natural disasters, water scarcity, crop failures, rising sea levels, etc. – affected, even though they generate only a fraction of global CO2 emissions.


Is climate change racist?


Researchers warn Bangladesh could lose 10 percent of its land mass – and 18 million people their homes – due to rising sea levels

Many countries in the so-called global south are particularly dependent on agriculture and often have comparatively poor infrastructure. That makes them vulnerable when it comes to looming climate impacts. There is also little money there to counter the effects of climate change. The consequence: you have to flee.

Already more people are fleeing climate change than wars

Already in 2017, it is estimated that there were about three times more climate refugees than war refugees. The figures vary because the problem is complex and there is still no standardized survey procedure. Oxfam, for example, estimates that there are 20 million refugees a year, and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) 25 million. But all estimates agree on one thing: In the next 20, 30 years, the numbers will multiply.

Of course, not all people in highly industrialized countries benefit equally from the exploitation of resources. And in less developed countries, not everyone is automatically a victim of the climate crisis. In general, however, the higher the income, the higher the environmental impact caused, according to the Federal Environment Agency – for example, by more frequent air travel or owning a car. So when we speak of climate racism, we mean, just as with environmental racism, an unfair distribution of risks: Those who are responsible for them suffer the least from the consequences – now also on a global scale.

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