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Climate Apartheid, Explained

By
Joshua Lubinsky

What is climate apartheid?

Deaths from the COVID-19 pandemic serve as a warning to another global disaster, which will not be alleviated by social distancing or modern medicine: the climate crisis. And just like COVID-19, the devastation of climate change will not be experienced equally. The climate emergency is the existential crisis of our time, and a climate apartheid is being revealed through the disproportionate vulnerabilities in which people experience the climate crisis.  According to predictions from a 2019 UN report, climate change is estimated to kill 250,000 people every year between 2030 and 2050 by malnutrition, malaria, and heat stress alone, and by 2050, it will displace 140 million people. The terrible injustice is that the people who are paying the most brutal price with their lives and their livelihoods, are those who lead the least consumptive lifestyles on the planet. The lack of action we have seen from the dominant world players suggests that we are dealing with none other than a climate apartheid. The problem is caused predominantly by countries in the Global North, which bear an overwhelming responsibility for carbon emissions due to their early industrialisation. Where these consequences are being felt is an entirely different story.

“Climate apartheid alludes to the retreat of global elites (who are responsible for the lion’s share of carbon emissions) into various forms of lifeboats, while the global poor are left to sink or swim.” - Ashley Dawson

When we compare the climate crisis to Apartheid in South Africa, we are referring to the social discrepancies that exist because of race and economic circumstances. These circumstances structure a hierarchical social order that creates inequality through the distribution of rights and the configuration of space.  Climate apartheid expresses that the forms of inequality which are prevalent in our social systems are going to be exacerbated by the climate crisis. These manifest in a myriad of ways. The ability to insulate oneself from disaster and crises will increasingly decide where in the social hierarchy they find themselves inhabiting.

Whether it’s in Africa, the Pacific or South East Asia. If the reality was reversed and the consequences were being suffered by the Global North, we would be seeing far more outrage and much more efforts. Racism is alive and kicking at a deeply intrenched global level. Valuing the lived experience of marginalised people needs to be at the core of the climate solution. In 2019, a UN Report was released by climate expert Phillip Alston warning of climate apartheid. Every person in the world will be affected by climate change, but those living in countries referred to as the Global South will be the people who suffer the greatest impact. This is because of the unjust implementation of aligned policies and insufficient financial means they have to manage natural disasters. This is why we need to reframe the climate crisis as a security issue.  


Christina Chan, director of the World Resources Institute’s climate resilience practice, describe climate change as a “threat multiplier.” Increasingly unpredictable weather patterns, shifting seasons and natural disasters disproportionately threaten these populations, endangering their livelihoods and increasing their risk of poverty and hunger. Wealthy people have the financial means to protect themselves, and the poor are at the highest risk of danger. According to Alson, while people living in poverty were responsible for just a fraction of global emissions, they have the least capacity to protect themselves. These events exacerbate existing injustices and inequality in society.


1: Extreme weather events are endangering efforts over the last half-century to mitigate global poverty

People living in poverty are residing in areas that are especially vulnerable to climate change, and living in housing that is not sufficient to withstand natural disasters. The Special Rapporteur report states little support is given to help these communities “recover from the impact” or financial assistance to manage risk of disasters in the first place.  Alston writes that people in the Global South are dying at a horrific rate up to seven times higher than people living in countries in the Global North. This is factored to the natural disasters that cause illnesses, crop failure, food inflation, and death.

Drought and severe storms are forcibly displacing people from their communities. Honduras suffered from two catastrophic hurricanes in a very short space of time, which has driven people to the U.S. border in search of refuge. This will have dire consequences in international relations, considering hostile policies towards immigrants and asylum seekers.  

2: Global food insecurity is inevitable.

What’s the connection between hunger and climate change?

There is an intrinsic link between hunger and climate change because of the threat posed to the world’s food supply. 2.5 billion farmers, herders and fisheries are reliant on the climate and natural resources for sustenance. Weather-related catastrophes like floods and droughts compromise the production of food and consequently, the cost of food inflates and access to it becomes increasingly scarce, which exposes many more communities to the risk of hunger. Natural disasters such as severe flooding, unpredictable rain patterns and climate-related displacement are having devastating effects on food security. The 2020 Global Report on Food Crises recorded that 135 million people across 55 countries and territories are victims of hunger and famine.

Malnutrition is the single biggest detriment to health that climate change poses in the 21st century. Almost 9% of the world’s population are reported to be undernourished — a figure that is increasing every single year. The majority of these people preside in low and middle income countries. Lacking insufficient food and other resources needed for good health is pervading countries in Africa and spiralling at an alarming rate throughout countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. Between 2015 and 2019, the amount of people suffering from malnutrition increased by 9 million. This rapid increase is attributed to intensifying weather changes and the rising number of political conflicts, which are only more inflamed by climate-linked distress.

Water shortages and famine are by-products of war and climate change, often resulting from armed conflict and being exacerbated by natural disasters. In 2015, a civil war erupted in Yemen, which has to date killed hundreds of thousands of people and become the largest humanitarian crisis in the world. This harrowing number is not only caused by rampant violence in the country, but also as a result of the ensuing famine, terrible sanitation and lack of access to clean water. In 2019, the UN estimated that 1.6 million children in Yemen were suffering from malnutrition. In a world where climate apartheid is increasingly prominent, the failure of agricultural crops will result in food being weaponised in conflict, while supply and distribution chains will be destroyed. With an increasing rise in poverty, food prices will inevitably face inflation and not be financially accessible to many families.  Global warming is also believed to be the reason for Malaria becoming more prevalent in Yemen. Rising temperatures will in turn lead to the scarcity of water, and rising sea levels will engulf Yemen’s coastline, risking the lives of millions.

As climate change stands currently, even the most optimal outcome would result in food insecurity for many countries. Access to clean water is likely to become even more limited, and the risk of hunger and famine will become even greater than it is today.  By 2050, climate change reportedly has the potential to exacerbate the number of people at risk of hunger by as much as 20%. The majority of those at risk live in Africa.


3: The wealthy will be able to buy their way out of the worst of climate change

Scientists have foreshadowed for years that the poorest people in the world would be the worst effected by climate change, yet are the ones least responsible. The unequal distribution of resources is setting a dangerous precedent for the climate emergency response, where the rich buy their way out of the worst effects of global warming, while the poor bear the brunt. We need look no further than Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson battling against one another in their billionaire space race. The ultimate symbol of capitalism’s never-ending obsession with expansion.


The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees believe that wealthy people will be able to purchase their way out of environmental break down which emphasises their avoidance rather than helping to solve the crisis.  Wealthier people in wealthier nations will manage to stave off the full force of environmental destruction, while many of the world’s poorer and marginalised communities will be forcibly displaced due to rising sea levels and drought, suffer with ailing health due to worsening conditions of air quality, and much worse, die.  Alston notes that “an over-reliance on the private sector could lead to a climate apartheid scenario in which the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger and conflict, while the rest of the world is left to suffer.”  

We only need to look at Bangladesh to understand the severity of climate change. More than a quarter of its population now live in areas which are highly exposed to severe floods. Environmental sciences have predicted that global warming will increase the persistency and extremity of monsoons which ravage the region. Rising sea levels alone will force as many as 18 million Bangladeshi people from their homes. Climate disasters will be replicated in every part of the world. Some states will see mass displacement due to flooding, while others will suffer through drought-induced famine. This will undoubtedly shape geopolitics with dire consequences.

4: Democracy is under threat

Countries with weak institutions and governments are likely to find it especially difficult to adapt to climate change. If extreme weather events cause governments to declare states of emergency, that is going to have extreme restructuring on current power systems. The UN report states that countries will more than likely adapt to climate change by restricting civil rights and expanding government control. This will increase conflict and social unrest. Crop failure in rural parts of Syria a decade ago sparked a mass relocation to urban cities, which added to the dissatisfaction with the government and fuelled the emerging political unrest. This resulted in one of the worst civil wars in history, causing a humanitarian crisis where an estimated 13.5 million Syrians were forced to flee the country, more than half of the population.

A sand tornado passes through as thousands of Kurds stream into Dikmetas, Turkey, from Syria in September 2014. Years after rural residents fleeing drought poured into Syria's cities, helping to spark a civil war, the region remains in turmoil.

Another manifestation of climate apartheid is the anti-immigrant panic that has swept through Europe. Refugees desperately fleeing the Syrian Civil War have sought sanctuary in the significantly wealthier states of the European Union, who are increasingly reluctant to observe global treaties concerning refugees.

Home Secretary Priti Patel’s overhaul of the UK’s asylum system signals a dangerous moment in time as she pledges to remove people entering the UK illegally who have travelled through third countries, which are often hostile and unwelcoming towards migrants. This serves as a forewarning of an increasingly nationalist and racist future for affluent countries in the Global North. More and more countries will suffer from ecocide and climate disasters, and those with no choice but to flee will be turned away. Though, this will undoubtedly to do little in preventing desperate people fleeing conflict from making dangerous crossings in search of safety.


5. One-sided climate adaption:

Climate change affects every person on the planet, but it does not affect us all equally, and the disparities are becoming more and more prevalent. This is especially true of climate mitigation and adaptation strategies, which by their very nature, establish a climate apartheid due to the unjust and biased action towards countries that have not the opportunity to grow and advance their economies in the same way countries in the Global North have. Often these sustainable development solutions fail to take into account the dimensions of poverty and historical inequities that endure because of colonialism, segregation and racism. Fighting the climate emergency is the responsibility of wealthier nations, who have benefitted and yielded significant financial gain from a long history of climate abuse and exploiting natural resources.

It is widely known that lower carbon emissions are vital in minimising climate change, but it also has potential consequences on countries who supply major exports, such as oil, and are heavily reliant on its demand for their economic development.  It is necessary that disaster risk managements be assessed and revised so that poorer countries have avenues in place that provide ample financial and social justice support. Not only will this help to prevent further disenfranchisement, but also incentivise countries in their climate change response efforts.


There are potential solutions

The report recommends that combating the problem through the lens of a human-rights emphasis might produce better results. This requires supplying protective infrastructure to vulnerable communities, relocation assistance, financial aid, and employment opportunities. This also extends to clean water, food security and adequate healthcare.


What can Anti-Apartheid teach the climate
movement? Disclose, Divest, Re-invest


The economic sanctions imposed on Apartheid South Africa through cultural boycott campaigns in Europe and North America were a crucial force in dismantling white-minority rule. It was one of the most influential social movements and is serving as a model for the BDS movement against the Israeli military regime in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.  It is also the inspiration for the current global fossil fuel divestment movement. So far, over 1000 institutions worldwide with managed investments worth almost USD$8 trillion have committed to take their money out and reinvest in renewable energy.  Yet, only seven energy sector companies have pledged to achieve net-zero emission targets, and the fossil-fuel industry is still heavily subsidised by world governments. The IMF reports that $6 trillion dollars are granted to fossil-fuel companies, even though renewable energy is significantly cheaper.

The Divest Canada Coalition

During the height of South African apartheid, activists protested against Shell, Chevron, and Mobil Oil for supplying oil to the apartheid regime for quite literally ‘fuelling apartheid’. Collectively, the anti-apartheid movement generated enough international support for the boycott of Shell Oil and pressured companies to stop their oil supply to the South African government until the system of segregation was overthrown. The grassroots campaign is an incredibly powerful mechanism for generating change.


Imagining a world free of fossil fuels cannot solely be promoted to environmental activists already favourable to a Green New Deal. We need it to appeal to corporate leaders, who can recognise a practical business model focused on long-term vision instead of instant financial gain.  Denmark is committing to phase out coal completely by 2030 and has also declared that their electricity and heating will be supplied entirely through renewable energy by 2035. Germany and Spain are following suit in their goals for decarbonisation.


Radical demands can swiftly enter the mainstream if enough support energises them


Through all the trials and tribulations of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has presented the chance to design a new kind of economy. The 26th Conference of the Parties to the UN Climate Change Convention (COP26) in Glasgow is one of the final opportunities to put this plan in to action. Whether this manifests in reality is determined by the political will of countries to enact these proposals, as well as the importance of the science behind them. Just as in the case of the South African liberation movement, we need international solidarity to challenge the oppressive power dynamics that have plunged the world into this crisis in the first place. What’s more, we need to dismantle the power structures that will protect the wealthy elite at the deadly expense of marginalised and indigenous people.

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