Yes, Climate Change Does Kill People of Color More

Some people really don’t like facts, preferring to be swayed by feeling, hearsay, assumption, and whatever comes along to affirm their own world view. It would be interesting if it didn’t have so much capacity to do damage.

Friends of the Earth were called racist and all sorts of things yesterday by the keyboard warrior contingent for supporting the Black Lives Matter protest at City Airport.

Facts may not be very good at changing people’s minds but we are not yet so deeply into a post-factual society that we shouldn’t at least consider them. Here’s an honest to God, straight up and down fact:

We have just witnessed a record-breaking 14 consecutive months of the hottest global temperatures since records began, with vanishing Arctic sea ice and the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef just the latest reality we have to face. Scientists say we have to go back 120,000 years before we find hotter temperatures than those currently recorded and are now predicting sea level rises of 10 feet by 2065. Think of some of the largest cities in the world and where they are—Rio, Mumbai, Hong Kong, and Shanghai—to realize what sea level rises will mean.

Climate scientists, governments, civil society and anyone else thinking rationally recognize that the impact of our carbon pollution will mean failing agriculture, greater food insecurity, more intense droughts and floods, record-breaking super typhoons and hurricanes, increased water shortages, more extreme weather. These elements lead to the forced displacement of people, and an increase in conflicts, and this is happening now.

Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines in 2013, left 7,000 dead and 2 million homeless. Floods in Pakistan in 2010 affected 20 million people. This year’s heatwave in India and Pakistan hit 51°C, while in the Sahel (the sub-Saharan region of Africa) drought has affected 23 million, and left 3.5 million displaced. Just one tropical storm, Erika, which hit the Caribbean island of Dominica last year, put back development gains by 20 years. And all this is happening at an average temperature of increase of 1°C.

It’s hard to put an accurate estimate on how many lives are lost each year to climate change, or how many communities destroyed. Some figures suggest up to 700,000 additional deaths per year, although climate change fans every existing inequality in the world.

Who are these people who are dying, and who is responsible? It’s the greatest injustice of climate change, that those who are the least responsible for causing the climate crisis, are the first to suffer. The poor, the marginalized, the indigenous communities are on the frontline—and they are overwhelmingly people of color in developing countries. And where it is richer, more developed countries dealing with wildfires, such as those in Australia, the U.S. or the floods in Europe, they invariably have more resources to deal with the impact.

Here are some more facts—just 10 percent of the world’s population are responsible for 50 percent of emissions, while the poorest 50 percent are responsible for only 10 percent of emissions. No guessing where most of that first 10 percent live. The reality is that rich countries in the West have grown wealthy from burning fossil fuels, and now other countries are using the same dirty development pathway to do the same. An average citizen in the U.S., with just 5 percent of the world's population, still has a per capita income of $41,064 and pollutes 17.3 tonnes of CO 2 . India, with 18 percent of the global population have average of $3,148 per capita income and its citizens are responsible for 1.4 tonnes. The world’s poorest countries—the so-called least developed countries—constitute 11 percent of the global population but have only a per capita income of $1,461, and the average CO 2 output across Africa is 0.9 tonnes.

Political decisions are being made for those whose voices are listened to, and it takes protesters such as those in Black Lives Matter to advocate for those whose voices are ignored.

The ink on the Paris Agreement isn’t dry, but politicians agreed to keep temperature increases to below the critical 1.5°C guardrail. To prevent a breach of that, we can only pollute at the same rate as we are doing for another six to 10 years. In a fair world, rich countries in the West would have decarbonized decades ago. But the harsh truth is that it’s incompatible with preventing a breach of 1.5°C and even the 2°C guardrail to build new airports, or to progress more dirty energy sources such as fracking.

So the Black Lives Matter protestors were absolutely right to say that climate change is killing black people. They are absolutely right to put the spotlight on airport expansion. Globally aviation emissions increased by 71.6 percent between 1990 and 2012, the same volume as the CO 2 emitted by Germany. If aviation was a country, it would be the world’s seventh largest emitter. That’s why the protest happened, and that’s why we need to listen to their message.

Asad Rehman is a climate campaigner for Friends of the Earth.