Connecting the Dots Between Systemic Racism and Climate Change

Man walks in front of a Black Lives Matter flag in Washington, D.C.

I am a privileged white man, grateful for what life has given me, and for the gold I’ve been able to spin out of life’s straw.

BLM — Black Lives Matter — has made obvious to me the link between systemic racism and climate change.

While volunteering at a local environmental group I once produced a promotional video. The idea was that one, then two, then four, then eight, all the way up to 32 of our supporters would recite the same reasons they supported us. Their faces would fill the screen in a grid, while their voices built during the few moments of the promo, to give the impression of swelling support.

The promo was never released.

I couldn’t find one volunteer who’s face was dark-skinned enough to make it obvious we had Black supporters. The growing matrix of talking heads made each face more and more of a postage stamp. Even the non-white supporters weren’t obviously visible minorities. The truth was, we didn’t have many Black supporters.

Why would that be? Study after study finds that Black people are even more concerned about climate change than white people.

The reasons for higher concern along racial lines are thought to be related to three or more factors. First, the fact that poorer people are expected to suffer disproportionately from the negative impacts of a warming world; second, the fact that wealth is not divided equitably along racial lines. Or in more plain language, Black people, Hispanic and Latino people, Indigenous or Aboriginal people — generally speaking — are the ones who get it in the neck because they can’t afford to get away. People like me can (at least for a short while).

A third reason for differences in climate worry between racial groups is attributed to Barak Obama’s presidency — the ultimate Black role model who was-and-is climate concerned. I’m sure there are other reasons.

The reasons behind why people have climate angst do jibe with stats on which group is more worried. But again, this runs counter to my experience in trying to find a Black volunteer for my promotional video. It also runs counter to the general perception of the climate movement as being a mostly white movement. If Black people are more worried, how come there aren’t more of them visibly working on fixing the problem?

Where’s the disconnect?

If you type “Poverty isn’t a lack of character. It’s a lack of cash.” into Google you’ll get a results page full of various takes on Rutger Bregman’s contention that people without money are too distracted just by getting through the day to do much else. He dismisses a quote from former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that poverty is a “personality defect.” Instead he builds an argument that by being weighed down by poverty people are unable to gain the scope and perspective to make better decisions. Every day, every hour is an emergency — there just isn’t time to plan for the future.

It’s a generalization but Black people have troubles beyond a lack of cash. Systemic racism is a distraction for its victims.

Volunteering on climate action takes a back seat not only to paying the rent and feeding your kids, but to avoiding unjustified arrest. As Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson puts it “if you would just stop killing us, we would be able to help a little bit more with this crisis that all of us are facing.”

Around the time I was working on the promotional video a Black man did die in my town in an otherwise relatively trivial police interaction. Black people and supporters did raise protests. Black people did volunteer their time to fighting racism.

Did that take time away from some who might otherwise have been supporters of my local climate action group?

The problem of “intersectionality” — the challenge that to solve problem “A” we have to solve problem “B” as well — seems very close to home.

But people who do get involved in the “climate movement” do so based on the findings of climate scientists. The objective of Because IPCC is to celebrate the achievements of those scientists, in particular as represented through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. I thought it would be useful to touch on the question of how the IPCC has stacked up as an equal opportunity organization.

Before the IPCC was formed in 1988 there was, between 1985 and 1990 an international scientific panel called the Advisory Group on Greenhouse Gases, or AGGG, established to advise the UN. Representation was predominantly male and entirely white, from North America and Northern Europe.

This is consistent with the fact that North America and Northern Europe were more richly endowed with PhD’s in climatology and atmospheric science than what were then called “third world nations” — what we might now call “developing countries.” Moreover those doctorates were more commonly held by white people.

The formation of the IPCC changed all that — sort of.

A button imploring visitors to share the book "Because IPCC" on social media. The button has a background image of a boy reading a graphic novel (actually a Superman comic book).

The United States was influential in supporting the formation of the IPCC. According to Dr. Michael Oppenheimer, one of the scientists of the AGGG, US support was in part intended to mute the voices of the more activist scientists on that UN advisory group.

Instead the IPCC was required — as science historian Dr. Spencer R. Weart* describes it — “to issue rules and reports only with the firm agreement of essentially all the world’s leading climate scientists plus the consensus of all participating governments without exception, the IPCC’s constitution should have been (and perhaps was intended to be) a recipe for paralysis.”

The mandate to involve all of the world’s leading scientists AND all participating governments necessarily drew talent from more than just North America and Northern Europe. All participating governments quickly grew to mean virtually ALL governments (IPCC membership stands at 195 nations contrasting with the UN’s 193). Thus the complexion of the IPCC was a change from the AGGG.

A button imploring visitors to make a charitable donation - all donations used to promote the book "Because IPCC" to new readers. The button has a background image of a boy reading a graphic novel (actually a Superman comic book).

The upcoming Sixth Assessment Report of the IPCC is due out in 2021 and 2022. In their passion for acronyms it’s called AR6. It’s currently being worked on by 721 scientific authors, representing 90 countries. It is unavoidable that doctorate density follows dollars and so among these 90 countries developed nations are most highly represented. African IPCC authors number 82 from 24 countries. Eight authors also hail from Caribbean nations with predominantly Black populations. Scientist’s skin color isn’t a statistic easily extracted from available data (available to me anyway) and it’s entirely plausible that some of the scientists from the rich mostly white nations might be Black, and equally that some of those from predominantly Black countries might be white.

Approximating based on all this gives us about a 12% representation of Black scientists on the IPCC AR6. This educated guestimate is hardly definitive but compare it to another approximation from Wikipedia that Africa represented about 17% of the world population in 2016; with an implication that it could be higher by now.

The IPCC may not have reached skin-color equity but considering how wealth and higher education opportunities might favor the more developed nations the IPCC has not done too badly. Science has a long history of ignoring borders and nationalities. Scientists seek the best ideas, wherever or whoever they come from. The IPCC may have institutionalized a degree of equity through it’s mandate to include all scientists and all governments.

It’s also notable that the IPCC has set up a scholarship for early-career scientists in developing countries for research on climate change. The hope is to stimulate research from those countries that will feed into future IPCC reports.

For more info on the IPCC — in a digestible form — check out the book Because IPCC.

It’s a short, 33 illustrated pages, an upbeat, entertaining story that explains the history and science of the IPCC. The scene is 100 years in the future when the world has “solved” climate change and people are looking back, inspired by the dedication, rigor and achievements of the scientists of today.

Photo credits:

*Weart goes on to say “By 2001 the panel would turn its procedural restraints into a virtue: whatever it did manage to say would have unimpeachable authority… the IPCC would issue what was arguably the most important policy advice any body has ever given… in fulfilling its declared purpose of providing advice the IPCC has rightly been considered a remarkable success.”