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Opinion: It’s not just carbon emissions. Human failures are ruining the climate too

Science tells us that to avoid irreversible climate change that will have a catastrophic effect on life on Earth we must limit further temperature rises to 1.5 or 2 degrees at the very most. That means achieving the emissions reduction target of net zero by no later than 2050. Time is rapidly running out.
Some will feel hampered by skeptical voters, financial constraints and Covid-19-related challenges. US President Joe Biden, while painfully aware of the risk climate change poses to the US economy, is struggling to enact vital green policies because of political polarization and tensions within his own Democratic Party.

But I believe that the key reason for much of the current inaction — and the greatest threat to progress at COP26 — is a lack of empathy. It is the inability of some of the most influential leaders and of large swaths of the public on whose votes they depend, including in North America, Europe and Australia, to see the majority of the victims of climate change as fully real people, deserving of protection. And that is partly because of those victims’ skin color.

The meeting rooms of COP26 will be haunted by the (literally) toxic legacy of the empire-building days of many of the world’s wealthiest countries, when prosperous, industrializing, northern-hemisphere nations, the populations of which were mostly White, plundered the resources of poorer, pre-industrial, southern-hemisphere nations, the populations of which were mostly Black or brown.
Colonialists and slave traders devised an ingenious way of justifying this exploitation while avoiding any burdensome sense of guilt — they invented the concept of race to justify declaring White people to be superior, and people of color to be inferior — not quite human. Lingering belief in and institutional reflections of this pernicious idea is still the cause of much injustice across the globe, and climate injustice is no exception.
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For, if the Earth continues to heat, it is the Black and brown inhabitants of the world’s poorest and most climate-vulnerable regions who will suffer the most and the soonest. People living in places such as the low-lying Pacific islands, now at risk of being wiped out by rising sea levels, and large parts of sub-Saharan Africa, where extreme heat, droughts and floods can lead to famine, will pay the price.
Their suffering will be closely mirrored by that of richer nations’ most disadvantaged populations, who cannot afford to protect themselves from climate-related severe weather events and are often unable to recover from such events once they have hit. This is already playing out in the southern US, where in recent years major hurricanes have left already marginalized, majority-Black communities traumatized and even poorer.
The G20 countries are, according to a paper from the World Resources Institute and Climate Analytics, responsible for around 75% of global emissions. Consciously or not, some of those privileged few are in danger of using the mechanism of dehumanization as a psychological buffer between themselves and those who pollute the least yet are most threatened by climate change. If you see the climate crisis as something that mainly affects people who are, in some indefinable way, not like you — or worse, as less human than you — then you are unlikely to feel the need to take urgent, expensive steps to save them.
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The only antidote to this ‘othering’, and to injustice of every kind, is a more radical empathy. If we are to succeed in fighting climate change, we need to develop deep empathy for all our fellow global citizens, and we should demand that our leaders demonstrate their ability do the same.

When we hear Pacific islanders explain how it feels to be facing extinction, we must be able to feel their dread. When we see climate refugees forced to leave Africa’s Sahel region, where unpredictable rainfall means they can no longer rely on their own crops to feed their children, we have to actually experience their anxiety, their despair, their hope.

Empathy requires work. It is not an easy task to really understand that a person who doesn’t look like you, talk like you or pray like you is, in fact, your brother or sister. It can be difficult, or even feel antagonistic, to be asked to glimpse the world through a stranger’s eyes, but doing it can lead us to recognize the beauty of our common humanity in ways that can transform the world.

The best way to open our minds and hearts and learn to empathize is to truly listen to others. That is perhaps the best opportunity that COP26 provides. We must give the people who have the most to lose from our climate inaction — inhabitants of the global south, members of poor and vulnerable communities and young people — an unfettered platform to express their fear and frustration and to share the solutions they know are required.

When they do, the rest of the world must pay very careful attention — at COP26 and beyond — and then act in unison to make social and racial justice a centerpiece of climate solutions, all pursued with renewed commitment.

If we can all take a leap of faith and start to perceive every current and future inhabitant of this fragile planet as being just as startlingly human as we are, then we may have a chance to avoid further climate disaster. We might also at last be able to build a new world in which racial and social injustice are things of the past. We all stand to gain from meeting that target. It seems to me that COP26 is as good a place as any to start.


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