Climate change: our generation’s biggest injustice

By Isobel Whitcomb ‘17
Current Events Columnist

Last year when I was adjusting to life in Claremont as a first year, I was amazed and overwhelmed by my classmates’ passion for fighting our world’s most prevalent current injustices. While Core I did force me to think more deeply about the concepts of institutional racism, systematic oppression and patriarchy, my fellow Scrippsies were my greatest teachers. Core lectures were interesting, but I soaked up the content of student-led intellectual debates, protests and educational campaigns like a sponge. Yet despite the rich content of these dialogues, Scripps activism largely overlooks a major social, economic and environmental crisis: climate change.
In the discussion of activism, it is important to remember that we are college students. Along with fighting injustice, we have papers to write and midterms for which to study. However, as Scripps students discover and become activists for their passions, climate change is an issue that often gets left by the wayside. For example, while Scripps students have a modest presence in the 5C club Claremont Climate Justice, we are overwhelmed by impassioned Pitzer students. A divestment petition that went out this spring drew only 177 signatures, while Pitzer’s drew over 1000 and a survey at Pomona found that 78% of their students supported divestment. This is surprising to me, considering the readiness with which Scripps students fight other injustices.
I believe that a major reason for the lack of dialogue about climate change on Scripps campus is that it is not yet seen as a social issue. Instead, it is seen as a purely environmental problem — a legitimate battle, but one for science students and those who love nature. First of all, dialogues on climate change need to address the issue as an all-encompassing crisis — one that will draw upon and aggravate the issues which we Scrippsies so readily fight, such as as structural violence and systematic oppression.
How does climate change cause social injustice? Increases in temperature, rising sea levels, extreme weather patterns and diminishing resources are concerns for everyone right now. However, economic and racial privilege afford certain groups of people the ability to escape dangerous weather and rising sea levels and the ability to access scarce resources, such as water. For example, as Scripps students lounge on lawns that are watered multiple times a day, poor farming communities all over California are losing their access to drinking water.
There is also anecdotal evidence that suggests direct ties between race and the extent to which individuals are affected by climate change. According to “The Root,” a publication dedicated to “black news, opinion, politics and culture,” racial minorities have higher tendencies to live in coastal areas impacted by hurricanes and rising sea levels. When natural disasters hit, these racial minorities have also seemed to be the last groups of people to receive aid. This particular form of racism was demonstrated after Hurricane Katrina, when being black seemingly meant that you were less likely to be rescued. While such a claim might seem controversial, it is backed by overwhelming first-hand evidence and expert testimony. In an interview on NPR Morning Edition, Professor Abel Bartley from Clemson University stated, “You would not expect to see white Americans spend four days without food or water with the press covering it every day and every minute and there be no response from the federal government.” According to New Orleans City Councilman Oliver Thomas, media portrayals of black people in the aftermath of the hurricane created a climate of fear and reluctance to send aid. In coming years, as sea levels continue to rise and as storms become more frequent in coastal areas, the racial and economic privilege required to relocate will cause a widening racial and economic gap.
The social imbalance of climate change is also highly dependent on class. Poor communities and nations have a significantly lower capacity to adapt economically, institutionally, and scientifically. As temperatures continue to rise, these nations and communities are predicted to become more dependent on developed nations for aid. Such a dependence could cause an increase in the power imbalance.
It’s time to start seeing climate change as a crisis that transcends the usual classifications of global issues. Whether you are a scientist, an environmentalist or someone whose passion is to fight for the rights of marginalized groups, climate change needs to become your battle. It is becoming our generation’s biggest injustice.