Climate Change’s Intersectionality

Alya Bohr, Columnist


Illustration by Catalina Burch.

I’m not going to convince you that climate change exists. Because, although this truth might be contrary to some peoples’ beliefs (looking at you, Republican party!), it unequivocally does. And because you are all bright, intelligent, well-informed millennials, I know you know this. What I would instead like to talk about is the intersectionality between climate change and other issues (I know, I know, could it get any more Whitman?). See, climate change is also a women’s rights issue, a class issue and a race issue. It’s all connected and it’s of vital importance that we observe this intersection.

Consistently, it is affluent communities that engage in environmentally unsustainable practices, yet it is disproportionately minorities who are hit with the brunt of the consequences. Take Hurricane Katrina for example. The impact of the natural disaster was clearly split along racial lines, significantly hitting New Orleans’ poor, black communities the hardest. It was the black people who were left on rooftops for extended periods of time, who were overlooked in initial aid programs, who were considered criminals as they roamed the streets of New Orleans after they were denied help. During a telethon for victims in response to the hurricane, Kanye West declared, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” This was not a coincidence: this was a racialized response to climate change.

As Naomi Klein, author and activist, explains, “If you have a culture that treats people like they’re disposable, that doesn’t value people, then, when you confront a crisis like climate change, those values will govern how you confront that crisis.” Our society gives less value to poor communities and communities of color. As the effects of climate change grow stronger, society’s lack of respect for minorities becomes further polarized. Our reluctance to react to climate change is connected with the systemic racism and class discrimination that pervades our society.

According to a report released by the UN, the groups most vulnerable to climate change are those who are politically, economically and socially marginalized. In developing countries, decreases in crop yields will be first and most strongly felt, significantly worsening already rampant malnutrition and low qualities of life. Additionally, it is in poor communities that weather-related disasters have their worst effects. During Superstorm Sandy, low-income households and housing projects – mostly populated by people of color – were hit the hardest. Nearly half of families requesting federal aid had annual incomes under 30,000 dollars, and the majority of people making claims to FEMA were from low-income families.

On another note, women’s subjugation is, in part, adding to the detrimental effects of climate change. Overpopulation is a significant factor influencing climate change, and developing countries have considerably higher rates of population growth. Because women in such countries are generally discouraged from entering the workforce, from pursuing higher education and from exercising their autonomy, they are often relegated to the domestic sphere and expected to be mothers. Were women to have other opportunities available to them, they might have less incentive (or might not feel as strongly pressured) to dedicate their lives to motherhood. The statistics show that in developed countries where women have the freedom to pursue careers and education, the rate of population growth is noticeably lower.

Climate change is also inhibiting the lives of women. After all, in poor nations, it is predominantly women who are responsible for gathering water, fuel sources and food – precisely the resources that climate change affects most strongly. The pressure of this growing scarcity in resources makes the jobs of girls and women more difficult, demanding and dangerous. According to UN WomenWatch, women’s health is more likely to deteriorate than men’s during times of growing food shortages. Women are also more likely to die after natural disasters because they lack knowledge and training in basic survival skills.

At the end of the day, the sad truth remains that climate change – though universal and all-encompassing – doesn’t affect us all universally. It is gendered, racialized and divided along class lines. If we acknowledge these unfair and disproportionate circumstances, we can begin to move forward. If we finally give value to those who have been marginalized, we can then give value to the grave environmental danger in front of us. Climate change isn’t some abstract, far-away, intangible thing. It’s a real problem, it’s a people problem, and it’s high time we took that to heart.