Racial Climate

Anti-racism is a matter of survival

I get tired of hearing anti-racism being described as virtue signaling, or as identity politics, or as a distraction from the real issues.  The real issue, the most real of all, is whether we survive as a species.  If we do not get a handle on climate change, we will not.  And racism is one of the reasons we are failing to do so.

The barrier is not technical.  We could tax carbon emissions to develop new technology, end subsidies for oil and gas, invest in wind and solar, and increase funding for fusion.  Other ideas, such as pulling carbon dioxide from the air or reflecting solar rays back into space, are not that far out of reach.  If we thought of healing the atmosphere as an Apollo-type project, and put it at the center of our national attention for a decade, we could get it done. 

The barrier is us.  We are perversely courting our own destruction.  In three ways, American racism gets in the way of policies to address global warming.

The first is the electoral process.  Republicans have been in denial about the the science of climate change this entire century, and Republicans seek to win election by suppressing votes.  Voter suppression only gets a pass when we ignore the reality of racism.  If racism were less normal, we would have less voter suppression, and fewer politicians who accelerate global warming.

The second connection between racism and climate change is the politics of pain.  Racism is mobilized to tell white people that they are hardy individualists who, unlike blacks and others, do not need handouts.  This is sadopopulism: leaders invite their voters to suffer, on the understanding that other people will suffer more.  Since the Reagan administration, this argument has been used against the welfare state, and in this century has been used against health care reform. 

Worryingly, the way that Americans regard climate change correlates with race.  According to a survey carried out by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, clear majorities of Latino and black respondents were "alarmed" or "concerned" by climate change, whereas the figure for whites was just under fifty percent.  At the other end of the scale, 14% of whites were "dismissive" of global warming, whereas the figures for Latinos and African Americans were much lower.  When asked what would be an important issue for them in the 2020 presidential election, 57% of Latinos mentioned global warming, as did 53% of blacks.  The figure for whites was only 35%.  

Matters get worse when we consider just why these numbers reveal such clear differences.  Racism makes white Americans vulnerable to the argument that government policy is mainly for non-white people.  This makes it hard to make policy that addresses general national problems: poverty, epidemics, climate. Perversely, this goes together with the idea that, if the problem becomes a disaster, white people will somehow get rescued first (an attitude justified by hurricane response under the Trump administration). It is no doubt true that, all in all, non-white people will suffer earlier than white people from climate change.  But if white people regard that as a spectacle to be observed as it unfolds rather than a spur to preventive action, we are all doomed.  The nature of climate change is that we must get out ahead with policy and technology.  Racism is slowing us down. 

Finally, racism and climate change are connected in the stories Americans tell about the future.  One story, which is true, says that we must reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and develop renewable energy to avoid ecological disaster and political collapse by the 2040s.  The other says that white people will be a minority in the United States by the 2040s.  The second story, regardless of whether or not is actually true, has the power to block out the first one.  White people who are told that the U.S. will become a majority minority country take a reactionary approach to a whole series of policy issues.  If white Americans were less anxious about race, it seems, they would be more capable of dealing with the future. 

The majority minority story implicitly holds that the risks to society come from people of another race.  Let us imagine that this story is repeated as climate change accelerates.  As Americans have more and more objective reasons to fear for their livelihood and their lives, they will have a subjective outlet: they can blame those of other races for their problems.  We have already seem the general outline of this: when climate change brings refugees from south to north, one reaction is to blame the refugees themselves, rather than thinking about climate change.  If our story is that life is a matter of demographic competition, then we will be more inclined to begin a racial struggle if and when we face increasing shortages of resources.  Some scientists call this scenario "Trump world."

History gives us another reference.  It was Hitler who insisted that the only response to ecological crisis was a war of race upon race.  His story was that the world had limited resources, that nature demanded that people fight for them, and that technology and ideals would be of no use.  We know where that led.  Anxiety about ecological collapse has been associated with a number of genocides and ethnic cleansings since.  Six years ago I wrote a book which made this argument, and summarized it as "Hitler's World." 

So we should be doing everything we can to prevent the objective reality of coming ecological catastrophe.  And we should open up voting, get past sadopopulism, and avoid framing the future as a racial tragedy.  We should keep the objective threat at bay, and teach ourselves reactions beyond blaming others.  We need the technology, and we need the ideals. That is where anti-racism comes in: it is an ideal, and one that just might save us all.

Hannah Arendt offered this stark pronouncement: "Racism may indeed carry out the doom of the Western world, and, for that matter, of the whole of human civilization."  In our elections, our policies, and our stories, American racism creates barriers to the understanding of climate change and to the enactment of solutions.  People who are working against racism are thus working for our survival.  They should get credit for doing so.