The political dynamic at the G-20 and the protests that rocked Hamburg during the summit have important lessons for the global community. Trump’s apparent isolation during the summit and the people who took to Hamburg’s streets brought two critical elements into the limelight—climate change and capitalism.
Unfortunately, the popular narrative on climate change completely ignores the role of capitalism and the free market in damaging the environment. Moreover, a glaring omission from the present climate justice movement is how it completely ignores the racial and class dimensions to climate change.
The idea that climate change affects all equally is false. Yes, climate change is a real phenomenon that must be tackled through a concerted global effort. However, the impact of climate change is not felt evenly across the board.
The impact from climate disasters such as the recent floods in Pakistan and Hurricane Katrina which struck America in 2005 depicts that the poor and the less privileged always dominate the count of those who lost their lives or suffered the most.
This economic dimension to catastrophes such as the recent floods in Pakistan—which are indeed the result of climate change and global warming—is crucial to establishing sound advocacy in favour of protecting the climate.
The disparity between the rich and the poor, moreover, is a product of the global capitalist system which forces the poor to live on land which is more vulnerable to damage from natural disasters.
This was most evident in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina where the elderly and the African-American community of New Orleans formed the bulk of those killed. The elderly because they are less mobile and prefer to stay at home instead of leaving the threatened area. African-Americans because they were less privileged and were thus forced to buy houses in the low lying parts of New Orleans which were more susceptible to floods. Most of New Orleans’ white population lived in the safer parts, and thus did not suffer as much as the minority black community because of the natural disaster.
The death toll from Hurricane Katrina highlights how the free market in fact makes certain communities more vulnerable to damage from a worsening environment. African Americans have historically been the most economically disenfranchised community in America, and America’s capitalist system further reinforces their poverty.
By choosing to ignore racial and economic dimensions of climate change, we are in fact advocating for merely dealing with symptoms without addressing the real cause
This is done through the ‘free’ workings of markets such as the housing market in America. Generally, areas where minority communities—primarily the Latino community and African Americans—live have lower market value for property and houses. Individuals from these communities usually only have their houses and land as valuable assets.
Unfortunately, due to certain social issues such as high crime rates—which are in fact a product of the marginalisation of these communities—result in the Latino and Black community seeing the value of their assets decline; further weakening their economic standing.
The economic plight of minority communities then raises the concern of urban climate damage; another aspect of climate change that activists and scientists choose to ignore. Since the land where minorities live is less expensive, it is ‘economically rational’ for large factories to establish themselves in these areas.
The toxic waste from these factories naturally impacts the environment and health of the communities living near these factories—which in most cases happen to be people of colour or the extremely destitute.
The incinerator installed in Los Angeles by the mayor of the city in the 1980s is a perfect example of this discrimination. The area around the incinerator was predominantly habituated by Latino and Black Americans who protested against the installation of the incinerator. They even approached the ‘Group of 10’, a consortium of some of the environmental justice movements within the US, including the Sierra Club.
The Group refused to protest against the incinerator because to them, this issue did not constitute a strong enough case for climate change activism, even though the Black and Latino minorities would suffer from the damage the incinerator was causing.
The Group’s refusal highlights another significant critique of present climate change activism—the lack of attention given to urban environmental damage. As the LA example shows, it is usually minority communities who are the greatest victims of this abuse to the environment in urban settings.
By choosing to ignore the racial and economic dimensions of climate change, we are in fact advocating for causes that merely deal with the symptom and do not address the real cause.
This is why the protests against the G-20 summit take on a significant role. The G-20 is a body which embodies and promotes neoliberal capitalism, and it’s supposed advocacy for limiting the impact from climate change without addressing the underlying economic and racial issues arising from climate change is nothing short of hypocritical.
We must not advocate for a change that does not hold capitalism culpable, and that ignores the racial and economic dimensions of climate change. The world will only become a better place if we focus on what happened on the streets in Hamburg and not what the G-20 discussed. Only then will we truly improve the environment and the lives of the oppressed.
The writer is a member of staff and graduated from Aitchison College and Cornell University, USA. He also studied at Oxford University and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Daily Times, July 18th, 2017.