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Climate Change and Racial Capitalism


Carmen Gonzalez is Morris I. Leibman Professor of Law at Loyola University Chicago School of Law and Professor Emerita at Seattle University School of Law

This post is part of the symposium celebrating the inaugural issue of the Journal of Law and Political Economy.

Racialized communities have borne the brunt of the carbon-based capitalist world economy from its colonial origins through the contemporary climate crisis. They have been enslaved, exploited, dispossessed, and subjected to both the physical violence of invasion and occupation and the structural “slow violence” of polluting industry. From the Niger Delta to the Canadian tar sands, racially subordinated populations living in the shadows of oil drilling, coal mining, oil and gas pipelines, power plants, refineries, and petrochemical plants are poisoned by toxic chemicals and treated as surplus and disposable.

In my article in the inaugural issue of JLPE, I break new ground by examining climate change and climate change-induced displacement through the framework of racial capitalism. Drawing upon the work of political theorist Cedric Robinson and sociologist Aníbal Quijano, I treat racism and capitalism as inextricably intertwined.

Robinson argues that capitalism emerged from a feudal order thoroughly infused with racial (or proto-racial) hierarchies. Quijano identifies Europe’s violent conquest of the Americas as the pivotal event that globalized white supremacy and established the capitalist world economy. Both have analyzed how racism makes oppression socially acceptable by portraying large segments of humanity as inferior, unworthy, and expendable. In my article, I focus on how the global capitalist order has used racism to create the conditions for the massive unchecked resource extraction that has caused global climate change and for pushing the burden of its impacts onto those who are most vulnerable and least responsible.

Climate Injustice

Climate change is caused primarily by the world’s most affluent inhabitants but threatens the lives and livelihoods of those who contributed least to the problem. As climate change intensifies, those most susceptible to climate-related disasters and displacement are also overwhelmingly persons classified as non-white. They reside in vulnerable geographic locations (such as coastal zones, the Arctic, and the Pacific island states), and have been deprived of the resources to protect themselves from harm through centuries of predatory economic policies.

As climate change intensifies, those most susceptible to climate-related disasters and displacement are also overwhelmingly persons classified as non-white.

Despite the disproportionate impact of climate change on vulnerable populations who have been largely ignored due to their racialization, legal scholarship on climate displacement has often adopted a doctrinal approach that fails to analyze the underlying systemic causes of the climate crisis and its relationship to race and racism. I focus on international law in particular.

Climate Change and International Law

International law has mounted an inadequate response to the climate crisis. The climate treaties have failed to curb global temperature increases, and have delivered insufficient adaptation assistance to climate-vulnerable states and peoples. Even though climate-related disasters and slow-onset events (such as sea level rise) threaten to displace millions of people, international law provides very limited protection to persons who flee their country of origin to escape the ravages of climate change. Neither the 1951 Refugee Convention nor the treaties governing climate change requires countries to admit climate-displaced persons.

Part of the problem is that international law has been complicit in the project of racial capitalism. As Antony Anghie explains, international law originates in the colonial encounter and has justified successive Northern interventions in the Global South through a variety of doctrines – including terra nullius, the doctrine of discovery, the mandate system, trusteeship, modernization, and development.

International law has depicted Southern peoples as so primitive, savage, uncivilized, backward, and under-developed that their lives, livelihoods, and cultures are unworthy of protection. It has also created the rules and institutions of the capitalist world system through which Northern states and transnational corporations maintain an iron grip on the states and people of the South, including trade law, foreign investment law, and international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Emerging Legal and Policy Responses to Climate Displacement

In the absence of a binding legal framework, three emerging legal and policy responses to climate displacement threaten to reinforce racialized hierarchies and to trap large segments of humanity in places that are becoming uninhabitable.

First, the national security response constructs climate-displaced persons as barbarians crashing the gates of civilization, and has fostered the criminalization, detention, and expulsion of migrants.

Second, the humanitarian response reinforces racial hierarchies by portraying climate-displaced persons as primitive, backward, and in need of charity rather than justice. Its voluntary initiatives to protect disaster-displaced persons obscure the Global North’s responsibility for climate change and have little chance of succeeding at a time of rising nationalism and xenophobia.

Third, the migration management response encourages climate-displaced persons to finance climate resilience in their home countries through temporary labor migration. This approach shifts responsibility for climate change adaptation from affluent states to exploitable workers from the world’s poorest and most climate-vulnerable populations. The exodus of able-bodied workers may also exacerbate the vulnerability of “trapped populations” (darker-skinned, older, disabled) by producing a brain drain, labor shortages, and reliance on erratic remittance flows.

A Just Solution to Climate Displacement?

Another way is possible. Climate-vulnerable states and peoples have called for an approach to climate displacement grounded in their collective right to self-determination and to legal continuity as self-governing communities on the territories of other states. This proposal deserves consideration. Successful implementation of it requires a responsibility-based framework that imposes obligations on affluent states to finance the mobility decisions of climate-displaced populations based on their contribution to the climate crisis. The self-determination approach is an example of the ways that Southern states and peoples are developing counter-hegemonic interpretations of international law that will permit them to shape their own history and transcend the colonially-imposed borders that impede mobility and increase climate vulnerability.

The self-determination approach is an example of the ways that Southern states and peoples are developing counter-hegemonic interpretations of international law that will permit them to shape their own history and transcend the colonially-imposed borders that impede mobility and increase climate vulnerability.

An analysis of climate displacement grounded in racial capitalism must identify who benefits from policies that stoke racism and militarize borders. These beneficiaries include the corporations that provide surveillance, border walls, and detention facilities; the security apparatus of the state; the businesses that exploit undocumented or incarcerated migrants; and the authoritarian populists who demonize migrants in order to persuade working class whites to support policies that intensify economic inequality and hasten catastrophic climate change.

Although greenhouse gases do not respect national borders, national elites deploy racialized systems of border control to perpetuate the illusion that persons classified as white can somehow escape the economic and ecological ravages of capitalism by erecting walls and fortresses. Racism enables states and corporations to pursue policies catastrophic to the planet and its inhabitants because the worst and most immediate consequences are inflicted on stigmatized populations in the sacrifice zones of the fossil fuel economy.

While focusing on the problem of climate displacement, the article uses the framework of racial capitalism to highlight how the struggles for racial, economic, and climate justice are interconnected and interdependent.

Racism creates divisions between people whose economic and ecological vulnerability should serve as the basis for solidarity and resistance. As economic inequality increases and the planet’s ecosystems are brought to the brink of collapse, all but the ultra-affluent will become frontline communities in an increasingly damaged and dangerous world. Deconstructing racial hierarchies is necessary in order to foster the collective action required to avert climate catastrophe.

Climate change is not an isolated crisis, but a symptom of an economic (dis)order that jeopardizes the future of life on this planet. Through a race-conscious analysis of climate change grounded in political economy, this article seeks to engage scholars in a variety of disciplines in order to develop more robust critiques of the laws, institutions, and ideologies that maintain racial capitalism and pose an existential threat to humanity.