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Climate change is an equity issue

Over the past two weeks, Southeastern Africa and the Midwestern United States have grappled with the aftermath of two severe storms. States of emergency have been declared in Iowa, Wisconsin and Nebraska after heavy wind, rain and snow devastated entire towns during a mid-March "bomb cyclone." Several people have died as a result of the storm and over one million acres of farmland has been impacted. Nebraska was hit the hardest and state officials have estimated the cost of the damage at around $1.3 billion. It took days for the Nebraska Department of Transportation to begin certifying some of the flood-damaged roads as passable. Iowa has also reported damages to freshwater treatment plants, leaving many residents without clean water. Meanwhile, in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi, Cyclone Idai is said to be responsible for over 400 deaths after over two feet of rain fell in less than a week. The storm is estimated to be the worst “in the history of the Southern Hemisphere,” with Reuters reporting that over 2 million people may have been affected. In Mozambique alone, more than 400,000 people are estimated to have been displaced by the massive flooding and damage to homes.

These concurrent tragedies remind us of two increasingly inescapable realities about our rapidly deteriorating environment. First, the progression of climate change is growing in severity. Second, the disastrous effects are being borne disproportionately by rural communities and the Global South. The New York Times reported back in January that oceans have been warming at a rate that is on average 40 percent faster than the trajectory estimated five years previously. The results of this accelerated warming are severe. Coral reefs are expected to sustain even further damage; coastal flooding is expected to become more frequent; and intense storms such as Hurricanes Harvey and Florence are expected to become commonplace, if they haven’t already. It’s hard not to see a connection between the predictions of scientists just three months ago and the devastation of these two recent cyclones. Yet another consequence of this warming is unprecedented levels of displaced people, a burden again disproportionately present in the Global South. 

More than 22 million people were estimated to have been displaced due to extreme weather events each year between 2008 and 2014. 90 percent of those displacements occurred in the Global South. These statistics illuminate a dismal truth about the disproportionate impacts of climate change. While some prosperous urban centers in the Global North have drafted plans to build massive walls in order to keep out rising ocean waters, the capital necessary for doomsday preparation is simply not available in Zimbabwe, Malawi or Mozambique. Similarly, in Miami—where beachfront property was once coveted—low-income residents far from the shoreline are finding themselves priced out of their neighborhoods by an influx of buyers looking to avoid floods and hurricane damage. And in Nebraska, much of the damage was to farmland after the failure of several levees. 

The reasons for these discrepancies, however, are no more natural than the origins of the cyclones that caused the destruction in the first place. Violence and disaster are not allocated equally—they are distributed along the lines of colonial history, regional poverty and intentionally disjointed geographic development. Yet, contemporary geopolitical solutions to the issue of a changing climate have disproportionately focused on shaming individual nations or poor populations for their emissions, devoid of historical context of conquest that complicates the picture substantially. Furthermore, wealthy nations like the United States have consistently pushed to consider only current levels of emissions when deciding responsibility of individual countries, rather than looking at past trends which would implicate them directly in the current crisis.

There is an undeniable connection between the history of colonialist economic subjugation in the Global South and the level of infrastructural damage and mass displacement from ecological disasters. The staggering income inequality in the United States has also produced circumstances in which the poor are destined to drown in the floods caused by the rich. Climate change is an issue of colonialist violence and class war. The wealth extracted from countries like Mozambique enriched now post-industrial nations, allowing them to poison the Earth and leave former colonies to suffer the consequences. Poor Americans are faced with a looming horizon of increasingly uninhabitable homes while the wealthy capitalize on the wreckage.

The next few decades will certainly be characterized by storms of unprecedented intensity and the type of destruction as experienced in Southeastern Africa and the Midwestern United States this month. Those effects will, of course, continue to be be felt disproportionately by certain geographies. There’s no uplifting call to action to give or reassuring conclusion that could cull the unimaginably catastrophic future we face. This is a reality we should acknowledge fully, as difficult as that may be.

This was written by The Chronicle’s Editorial Board, which is made up of student members from across the University and is independent of the editorial staff. The editorial board did not meet quorum for this editorial.

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