I was out for dinner with some friends this time last year and after the waiter took our order, one of them turned to me and asked me why I was vegetarian. I told him that although there were several reasons, it was primarily an effort to reduce my carbon footprint. The conversation inevitably turned to climate change to which he contributed: “sure we don’t have to worry about that for another 30 or 40 years”. His comment, the product of benign ignorance, struck me for a number of reasons. I realised that the truth about the climate crisis rarely reaches outside a certain cohort of people and often you have to seek this truth for yourself. I was also struck by the realisation that we in Ireland carry a certain privilege which many other people in the world do not. 

That memory resurfaced this week when Leo Varadkar made comments regarding the “benefits” of climate change to Irish people, including lower heating bills and fewer deaths due to warmer winters. His comments have been subjected to much criticism; and rightly so. They represent a willful ignorance of the impact that climate change is already having to many people beyond our shores, without mentioning what is yet to come for Ireland. At the core of his message is a display of privilege which is not afforded to most. 

Privilege and climate change are deeply interwoven and intersect in a number of ways. Firstly, any worthwhile conversation about the climate crisis must realise that not everyone is affected in the same way. While Leo dreams of milder winters, many in the global south are already learning to cope with the damaging effects of climate change. In Leo’s familial home of India more people than ever are dying due to extreme heat waves; in Bangladesh, towns  are being displaced due to sea level rise; that sea level rise is destroying fertile farmland and ruining livelihoods in Vietnam; while communities in sub-Saharan Africa suffer crop failure due to increasingly irregular weather patterns. The common theme here is that the countries which are already suffering are those with some of the lowest per-capita emissions in the world. This disparity became abundantly clear at the Pacific Islands Forum in August of this year where a group of low-lying nations, including the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu, asked Australia to stop burning coal because the country was directly contributing to sea level rise and land loss in the region. Australia arrogantly declined. Just three years previous, Kiribati was forced to purchase land in Fiji for the eventuality that the nation would be submersed in the coming years. The combined carbon footprint of these island nations does not even compare to the average Australian city, and yet they are losing their homes because of the greed of those in the developed world. 

This raises the second major intersection of climate change and privilege: not everyone contributes the same amount. One observation many people will point to is that greenhouse gas emissions are rising because Earth’s human population continues to grow far beyond a point it has ever reached in history. While there is a very real conversation to be had about curbing human population growth, the causes of climate change go far beyond just numbers. Many of the countries with the fastest-growing populations (e.g. India, Nigeria, Bangladesh) also have some of the lowest per-capita emissions in the world. This is because many of the activities which have driven climate change have, until now, been restricted to more privileged people in the developed world: air travel, car ownership, meat-intense diets, fast fashion and many other facets of consumerism which have yet to reach less developed nations. These are luxuries which most people in Ireland take for granted. If you’ve ever been on an airplane (even once), you’re among the privileged 18% of the world’s population; and I’d wager most people reading this have taken more than one flight in their lives.

If we are to reverse climate change, we first need to fully understand the dynamics that drive it, i.e. capitalism and its malicious offspring colonialism. The inequality that exists between those who are causing climate change and those who are suffering from it is the biggest challenge facing humanity presently. We are living in a globalised world and until now we have been a net beneficiary of a system which has left many other nations to fend for themselves against the consequences of our greed. It is time we held ourselves and other developed nations accountable for the negligent, reckless and sometimes heartless actions of the few. We are far beyond the point when a world leader can turn a blind eye to the devastating effects of the climate crisis. True leadership would recognise our privilege and use it to help those who have suffered under the same system which has benefitted us. But maybe that’s expecting too much of the Taoiseach.


Photo by Gareth Chaney/Collins on Irish Times


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