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Climate inequality defines the present; don’t let it define the future

The people who are least responsible for climate change will feel its effects the hardest. It's time for policy-makers to address that injustice.

February 28, 2023

2-minute read

One of the gravest injustices of the climate crisis is the large and growing gap between those who are most responsible for global heating and those who are most vulnerable to its consequences.

The richest 1% of humanity produces more greenhouse gas emissions than the bottom 50% combined. Yet it is the poorest parts of the world that are suffering the most deadly and destructive climate-induced extreme weather events, such as the unprecedented monsoon floods in Pakistan last year, which displaced more than 30 million people.

Canadians are among the worst offenders. We produce more greenhouse gas emissions, per person, than people in any other country outside of the oil-rich Middle East. But the average numbers are misleading. Here, too, there is dramatic inequality between the richest Canadians and the most marginalized.

Many Indigenous communities, for example, are on the front lines of Canada’s changing climate, which is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. Traditional lifestyles are at risk from collapsing ecosystems. Longstanding issues of inequality, such as food and housing insecurity, are only made worse by a changing climate—in spite of these communities’ enduring stewardship of the land, water and air.

In cities, one of the greatest impacts of climate change is extreme heat, which disproportionately affects lower-income residents. Of the 619 heat-related deaths during B.C.’s 2021 heat dome event, for example, the majority were found by the chief coroner to be in “socially or materially deprived” neighbourhoods.

Addressing these impacts should be a high priority, especially where the risks are rising and the solutions are well understood. Increasing access to air conditioning would substantially reduce deaths during heat waves, for example. Many residents in Indigenous communities are already owed better infrastructure, so doubling down on climate-resilient green infrastructure is a smart thing to do.

Instead, Canadian governments at all levels have prioritized subsidies and incentives for things like electric vehicles and home energy efficiency retrofits, which disproportionately benefit the already well-to-do.

Ironically, since these kinds of investments reduce total energy use, they also save higher-income households money in the long term. Lower-income households and remote communities that can’t afford the up front cost of fuel switching, in contrast, keep paying higher bills. And as the cost of fossil fuel energy rises those bills only get higher.

In sum, not only are the lowest-income and most marginalized people—both between and within countries—the least historically responsible for climate change, and not only are they the most vulnerable to the impacts of a changing climate, but they are also largely being left out of efforts to transition to a cleaner economy.

It’s an ugly recipe for a greener future—one that’s destined to reproduce the fossil-based inequality of the past. So what should marginalized communities do to take control of their own future?

In a forthcoming CCPA report, co-authors Max Cohen, Isabella Pojuner, Avi Lewis and myself tackle this question. We find that while there is no substitute for the power of government leadership and spending—indeed, governments at all levels can and should be doing more to address climate injustice—grassroots climate organizing has an important role to play.

We propose a “five D” strategy for organizers: define the community in question, design inclusive organizing processes, dream of a greener future, determine constraints and barriers, and deliver alternatives. By uniting communities around a shared vision grounded in local knowledge, grassroots organizing can focus advocacy efforts and kickstart new economic opportunities.

The income inequality we face today is the product of historical injustices and ongoing exploitation. Climate inequality is no different. But the coming transition to a cleaner economy offers a tremendous opportunity to correct that path. Where governments fail to lead, it falls to communities to take up the mantle and push for a more inclusive and sustainable economy for all.

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