We live in a world of widening disparities. Here in the U.S., unemployment is near record lows and median incomes are rising, but benefits are very unequally shared.
The inequities don’t end with economics. When it comes to the heat-trapping emissions that cause global warming, the lion’s share comes from those with the wealth to fly around the planet, heat and cool huge homes, and consume diets of high environmental impact.
And who is most impacted by all of those emissions? It is primarily the poor, whether in less-affluent countries or in impoverished neighborhoods. Poorer urban areas, like those in St. Louis, are the first to suffer when deadly heat waves strike. Similarly, entire nations at the other end of the economic spectrum, the “global south,” are least able to endure the increasingly disruptive weather coming with climate change.
Why call this climate privilege? The phrase is drawn from white privilege, a very real phenomenon that so permeates most of affluent white America. Many of its beneficiaries deny its presence, like fish unaware of the water in the pond. White privilege has resulted from the cumulative effect of generations of differential rates of wealth accumulation between white and black communities, both in St. Louis and across the U.S.
Climate privilege has resulted from the widely varying emission rates of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere. Just as the wealth differences are magnified as they accumulate through generations, so do the lasting impacts of emissions. The average time a carbon dioxide molecule spends in the atmosphere is many decades.
These emissions began accumulating with the Industrial Revolution, which sparked in Great Britain during the 1700s but really caught fire in the U.S. during the 1800s. Of course, there were many economic benefits created throughout this period. But they have been shared unequally from the beginning. And now — doubling down on the negative consequences for the poor — the environmental impacts are unequally targeting the very people who are least responsible for the emissions.
Here in St. Louis, Washington University’s Jason Purnell has documented the shocking disadvantages for predominantly African American neighborhoods in terms of reduced life expectancy and other key health outcomes. Relative to the other public health threats (e.g. gun violence, diabetes, heart disease, etc.), the differential risks associated with climate change are relatively small. But the fact they are inequitably higher than those faced by wealthier (sometimes immediately adjacent) neighborhoods is yet another injustice.
How can climate privilege be dethroned? In his sweeping 2015 encyclical, Laudato si’ (with input from St. Louisan Peter Raven), Pope Francis correctly identifies the core issue that must be uprooted: consumerism. A major missing element here in St. Louis has been the failure of its powerful and diverse faith communities to fully engage on either economic or environmental injustices. While Jesus predicted the poor would always be among us, he also repeated the Torah command, “love your neighbor as yourself.” Or, if you prefer modern-day inspiration, in the Spider-Man story we are told, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
What have our privileged faith communities done with this power? Precious little. Dethroning climate privilege will be just as difficult as dismantling white privilege. The first step is for the privileged to acknowledge the reality of their power. The next is to wield this power in a manner governed by love of neighbor rather than a consumer-focused love of self. Successive steps will be far more difficult, as more of these same people embrace policies and actions that reduce the environmental impacts of wealthy lifestyles and unjust systems.
None of this is easy. But I’m encouraged by the number of St. Louisans who are enthusiastically embracing racial reconciliation, an important step along this path.
David I Gustafson, Ph.D., is an independent scientist who uses modeling to help food systems meet human nutrition needs in more sustainable ways. He is founder of the St. Louis Reconciliation Network, which is working to heal regional race relations.