Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Climate Change and the Working Class

I have a piece at Global Comment on how the environmental movement has done a terrible job making climate change about people instead of polar bears and why this matters. Here's an excerpt:

I am volunteering for an environmental justice organization in a large northern city. This group works on environmental health issues with the city’s poor, mostly African-Americans and Puerto Ricans, and has started focusing on how climate change will affect working-class people. Rising temperatures will lead to any number of problems for the economically disadvantaged, including air pollution, higher rates of asthma, greater populations of cockroaches and other unwanted insects, rising food prices, a greater percentage of income spent on energy, and increased mortality rates for people who do not have access to air conditioning.

Climate change has proven difficult to explain to people; scientists’ unwillingness to declare anything a certainty combines with climate change’s complexity to leave people confused. My organization went to its constituents and tried to explain climate change to them. The organizers messaged this campaign in an interesting way: openly attacking the environmental movement’s framing of the issue. They created buttons that featured a crossed-out polar bear. They repeatedly told the attendees that climate change was about people, not bears. And yet, when the question and answer session began, the overwhelming response was, “Why should I care about bears?”

Why should poor people care about bears? That’s a great question. I can’t think of a good reason. Now, I don’t really approve of the anti-bear message. The idea of polar bears going extinct because they lack polar ice makes me want to vomit. However, this scenario demonstrates the horrible job the environmental movement has done in framing climate change.

By focusing on bears instead of people, the environmental movement sends mixed messages. It might reinforce the responsibility humans have to protect other animals and ecosystems, but it also suggests that climate change won’t affect people like bears. Moreover, it creates an image that the poor don’t count in environmentalism, reinforcing the inability of environmentalists to connect with working-class people over the last thirty years.