Climate awareness pamphlet that reads "Break Free from Fossil Fuels" in San Francisco. Photo by Eelco Böhtlingk on Unsplash
Climate awareness pamphlet in San Francisco. Photo by Eelco Böhtlingk on Unsplash

New study opens door to imagining a new equal and sustainable world

New One Earth study reveals how inequality fuels climate change, presenting the opportunity to incorporate transformative justice perspectives into climate solutions

Last month, a non-profit dedicated to addressing the climate crisis, One Earth, released a study revealing how social inequality fuels climate change and “weakens the social foundations of collective action.”

For many climate advocates, the relationship between climate change and social inequality is painfully clear. 

“Climate instability threatens the loss of social justice and equality gains over the past half-century,” said Dr. Kelly Davis, a clinical social worker and director of the Institute for Social Work and Ecological Justice. “Making it the most significant and universal problem facing social workers.”

Research shows that the most marginalized — poor and BIPOC people, for example — already face the brunt of climate-related devastation. Meanwhile, wealthy countries account for almost 40 percent of carbon emissions, while only making up 16 percent of the world’s population.

In the study, researchers define inequality as both interpersonal and absolute (eg. financial insecurity and poverty versus extreme wealth) and analyze the ways inequality fuels climate change through five lenses: 

  1. consumption patterns 
  2. production decisions 
  3. obstruction of climate policy by wealthy elites 
  4. trepidation (households’ fears about the impacts of climate mitigation policy) 
  5. non-cooperation (the erosion of social bonds that strengthen collective political action)

The central claim of the study is to advocate for the reduction and taxing of extreme wealth and “carbon-intensive luxury consumption”. This could reduce global carbon emission by 30 percent, if the emissions of the 1.1 billion highest emitters (and consumers) were capped at the level of the least-polluting citizen.

And although research shows that with an increase in household income there is a roughly 2 percent increase in carbon emissions, researchers properly point out that this does not take into account that this number might decrease (or, conversely, result in a decrease in emissions) if an individual’s “needs” were met.

Low-income people, for example, are more likely to experience energy poverty, meaning that they’re more likely to face higher energy-related expenses (nearly 5 percent more) than wealthy people. This is especially true for low-income households in urban areas, who face a disproportionate energy burden due to things like older housing stock, making it harder and more expensive to cool or heat their homes.

This poses the question: how might these numbers change if poor, and all, people were able to have their basic needs fulfilled?

According to the study, meeting more of these needs and moving towards a society of equality allows for a shift in consumption toward “easier-to-abate” residential energy use, which also presents the opportunity for more clean and zero-emission energy and technology.

In other words, sustainably providing the most marginalized with what they need could actually lead to a dramatic decrease in overall energy consumption.

One way these researchers propose we can begin to address this inequality, and therefore climate change, is through supporting social reform like the Green New Deal (GND). They argue that because it addresses and centers inequality in a way that carbon-centric policies alone do not — emphasizing climate adaptation in poor communities, for example — it would achieve decarbonization more effectively.

The study explains how facets of GND, like “social-provisioning” policies work towards a society where everyone’s basic human needs are met sustainability via low-emissions systems.

“It is imperative to simultaneously remedy both the social justice and ecological justice issues and dismantle oppressive hierarchies,” said Davis regarding social programs like the Green New Deal.

The Problem, Deconstructed

From a transformative justice perspective, studies like this one make my brain tingle.

In many ways, this is the research that many of us advocates have been waiting for — concrete proof of what we’ve known all along, which is that oppressive systems like capitalism, and the inequality it produces, are causing climate change.

And so, the solution to our burning planet is perhaps clearer than ever, and only took thousands of years of oppression and cultural genocide at the hands of systems like white supremacy and colonialism to finally get us here: white greed is killing the planet.

At the root of much of this injustice are wicked greed and a deep desire to assert one’s own security by cementing the inferiority of another. 

This has manifested as white supremacy. These are the same sorts of ideas that fueled colonialism and theories of Manifest Destiny throughout the 1800s.

“Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.”

― Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

The breaking down of our society — where wages are at an all-time low, equitable education is hard to access and the majority of the population is one paycheck away from houselessness — is a direct consequence of and reaction to a centuries-long event where a lapse in human empathy has been allowed to fester.

Are we officially living in a dystopian society, where conditions are so poor we are all forced into hyper-individualism as a means of survival? Can we begin to predict what horrors might occur, generations from now, should we not address this collective state of fight or flight that we are all living in?

“Philosophers call this state of isolation and disconnection “species loneliness” — a deep, unnamed sadness stemming from estrangement from the rest of Creation, from the loss of relationship. As our human dominance of the world has grown, we have become more isolated, more lonely when we can no longer call out to our neighbors. It’s no wonder that naming was the first job the Creator gave Nanabozho.”

― Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants

The Solution

While addressing the impacts of inequality in more tangible ways — radical and transformative policy, the government providing for and addressing the needs of the people, widespread and accessible social programming — it is important to also provide a remedy for the core wound from which it spreads.

As author, psychotherapist, and trauma expert Resmaa Menakem wrote in My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies

“What made this strategy so profoundly effective and ultimately, so enduring is that it simultaneously colonized and recolonized the minds, hearts, and bodies of everyone except prosperous landowners. Poor white Americans had no voting rights because they did not own land. Nevertheless, they took pride in their status as white people, and routinely lorded this status over Black bodies.”

— Resmaa Menakem

So you see, oppression is inherited, by both the abuser and the individual or community being marginalized. The inequality that we see, which is fueling our climate crisis, is a consequence of a ruling class projecting their pain and fear onto another. The, perhaps, largest witnessable display of a trauma response from one population to another.

The goal, therefore, is not, technically, to heal white people, or cis-gendered men, or anyone else that has structural power. It is however to at least acknowledge, both at an individual level and a collective one, that it is this compulsive need for “survival” that has pushed our collective to decide who is allowed to survive by dictating who is deserving of their position (via arbitrarily decided and constructed categories of race, class or gender).

“The sense of loss that compounds the impacts of climate change, both current and future, creates feelings of despair,” said Davis. “Therefore, we need to continue calling each other into this work; we can better adapt clinical and advocacy skill sets and modify tools and assessments through collaboration.” 

The only way a broken and unjust system can continue to oppress those at the bottom, allowing for the system to continue functioning in this backward way, is to somehow justify why those that are marginalized are at the bottom.

We do this by saying that poverty is indicative of one’s level of productivity or self-worth. We also do this by suggesting that certain races are inherently more violent, and therefore deserving of heavier policing, through instigating fear. We decide this through narratives that posit that women, non-binary people, and queer people, are hysterical, defective, challenging, or threatening, for whatever reason, to a traditional system.

The pushback that we are seeing to climate change is another system of this dynamic of fear and control that permeates throughout a ruling class. Many people are scared.

Scared of not living a sustainable life; not knowing where their next meal is coming from, or if they’ll have secure housing for the next month, if they’ll ever be able to enjoy their loved ones or accomplish their own dreams, in-between physically and emotionally degrading work and labor.

This, I believe, is why we have so much strife, why our world is blanketed by so much stress. The living conditions, in almost all aspects of life, are poor. Many are simply surviving, not living.

Climate change will only, inevitably, exacerbate these issues. We must address and fulfill every human’s basic needs — housing, food, clothing, water — in order to solve, perhaps, every other issue that plagues the modern world.

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