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Are White People Bad For the Environment?

June 17, 2021

The origins of global warming are “rooted in a racism of ‘I know better.’”

If you look at whose lives are most affected by the many harms of climate change, it’s clear that race matters. You can point to the disproportionate suffering experienced by the Black victims of Hurricane Katrina, the high proportion of Latino farmworkers who suffer from heatstroke or worse every year, or the number of Indigenous lands contaminated by fossil fuel infrastructure. Those examples are just in the United States, mind you, and not even a comprehensive list of wrongs! And the immediate question is: Since white people are relatively protected from climate change, does it imply that they are its main perpetrators?

The answer is complicated. White people are, of course, not a monolith. On one end of the spectrum you have your white mega-billionaires with spectacularly high carbon footprints both in terms of personal lifestyle and professional influence on consumption culture. At the other, you have the poor, white population of, say, parts of West Virginia, whose bodies and hometowns have been completely decimated by the fossil fuel industry. The gap between these two groups might lead an uncritical observer to exclaim, Aha! This proves race is just a proxy for class in this environmental equation!

Not exactly. Income certainly is an important predictor of one’s individual climate impact. It is a widely acknowledged and well-researched fact that the more money you have, the higher your carbon footprint tends to be. An analysis by Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute found that those in the top 10 percent of the global income bracket are responsible for a whopping 46 percent of consumption-related emissions. And if you look at the breakdown of where the richest people live, about half reside in North America or European Union. A substantial portion of the rest is located in China and the Middle East. It turns out enormous wealth and extravagant consumption are not the exclusive provenances of those of European descent.

But I cannot emphasize this enough: The existence of wealthy non-white people is not a counterpoint to the fact that the climate crisis was strongly perpetuated by white, Western European ideas about dominance. (Nor is the existence of poor, white people who suffer because of our climate-destroying economic system.) Across social classes, the Western European ideal of “success” is based very much on extractive economies, materialism, and individualism — each a pillar of the climate crisis. When you consider this foundation, it is not a coincidence that almost all of those mega-billionaires are white.

The origins of global warming are “rooted in a racism of ‘I know better,’” said Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute, a progressive think tank. That particular sense of entitlement is a key tenet of white supremacy.