What is climate privilege?

To be privileged is to have a certain advantage in life, usually unquantifiable. Because it is inherent to who we are, it is often easier to spot privilege in other people than in ourselves. We take our own privileges for granted, see them as normal, and it can feel like an affront when someone points them out. The personal nature of privilege makes it a difficult topic to talk about.

It’s also a slippery subject because the advantages of privilege are intangible. As the psychologist John Amaechi puts it, “all privilege is actually more about the absence of inconvenience, the absence of an impediment or challenge, and as such when you have it, you really don’t notice it, but when it’s absent, it affects everything you do.”

A visual representation of climate privilege

To give an example, I am right-handed and the world is designed with people like me in mind by default. It is only because my sister is left-handed that I became aware that it isn’t like that for everyone. As a right-handed person I never need to worry about the ergonomics of everyday objects.

The absence of challenge is what privilege is all about. A financially privileged person won’t know what it’s like to be poor. A man does not know what it feels like to be discriminated against for being a woman. White privilege, a term which is so emotionally charged for some people, works the same way. Reni Eddo-Lodge summarises it as “an absence of the negative consequences of racism.”

I’ve read a fair bit about white privilege while researching my book on climate change and race, and in the meeting of those two topics I identify another form of privilege: climate privilege.

To be climate privileged is to be untroubled by climate change, to have no personal experience of its negative effects. Climate privilege is the luxury of thinking of climate change as something that happens elsewhere, perhaps in the future. Those with climate privilege can file it as an environmental problem, associating it with coral reefs, rainforests or polar bears.

Climate privilege is partly to do with geography. As a wealthy nation in Northern Europe, for example, Britain is one of the most climate privileged places on earth. Marek Kohn explored this ten years ago in his book Turned Out Nice. It is not that Britain will be left unscathed by the climate emergency – far from it – but that it is likely to be worse elsewhere. Britain will not be rendered uninhabitable and its citizens stateless, which remains a very real prospect for small island states or some of the world’s hottest and driest regions.

Climate privilege is also a matter of wealth. Dubai is very hot, but it also very rich. It can respond to a warmer world with more air conditioning. The same is true locally, with some areas able to afford flood defenses and others left to fend for themselves. And it’s true individually. Some can afford to adapt to climate change, and don’t experience it as a threat. The differences can be stark – when South Africans experienced acute water shortages in 2018, the richest were still irrigating their lawns from their private boreholes while fellow citizens queued with buckets in the street.

Ice sheets collapsing. This image embodies climate privilege because it seems like a far away problem
Ice sheets collapsing

Just as white privilege might lead someone to dismiss or misunderstand calls for racial justice, climate privilege can cause people to underestimate the seriousness of the climate crisis. Just as white privilege can obscure complicity in racist social structures, climate privilege can blind people to their part in carbon economy. And since climate change disproportionately affects people of colour, there is a lot of overlap between white privilege and climate privilege.

Where people do not feel affected by climate change, there is no sense of urgency to do anything about it, and I think climate privilege lies at the heart of the problem of why the world’s most powerful have been so slow to respond adequately to the crisis.

Strangely enough, I hadn’t ever heard anyone use the term ‘climate privilege’, and I went looking for references to it. There’s an ethics paper by Cynthia Moe-Lobeda that used the term in 2016, and an article using the term differently, to highlight how protesting about climate change is a privilege. Otherwise I can only find passing mentions or academic references. So I don’t think I’ve just missed it – it doesn’t seem to be in active use.

As the effects of climate change are already being felt, the crisis is no longer theoretical. Complacency is deadly, and I think it’s time to start talking a whole lot more about climate privilege.

Article by Jeremy WIlliams. You can view more of his work on his blog.

This article was published under a creative commons license.

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