Environmental Justice: Climate change denial is also human rights denial (Rep Steve King edition)
Regular readers would hardly be surprised to hear us call climate denial an evil and malignant cancer, one fed by a fossil fuel industry that is incompatible with a safe climate. But you might be somewhat surprised if we were to go so far as to call denial a human rights violation. But it is. And that’s not even our determination.
Yesterday, Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and UN High commissioner for human rights and special envoy for climate change, now chair of the Nelson Mandela-founded human rights group The Elders, accepted the Kew International Medal for her work on climate justice.
In her acceptance speech, the Guardian reported, Robinson described how the recent climate strikes are just the latest example of how “we have entered a new reality, where fossil fuel companies have lost their legitimacy and social license to operate.”
It’s great to see someone so directly acknowledge that fossil fuels are incompatible with a healthy climate. And “healthy” is used intentionally here–it is people’s wellbeing that’s at stake. As Robinson puts it, “climate change denial is not just ignorant, it is malign, it is evil, and it amounts to an attempt to deny human rights to some of the most vulnerable people on the planet.”
In her speech, Robinson aptly describes how “climate change undermines the enjoyment of the full range of human rights–from the right to life, to food, to shelter and to health. It is an injustice that the people who have contributed least to the causes of the problem suffer the worst impacts of climate change.”
If you’re wondering what sort of evidence Robinson has for the claim that denial is evil, consider Republican Rep. Steve King (Iowa)’s recent comments. As you may or may not know, depending on how closely you follow white nationalists, Rep. King has a long history of being an unapologetic racist, as well as a climate change denier.
Last week, he combined these two passions. King claimed,, last week that when FEMA went to New Orleans after Katrina, “everybody’s looking around saying ‘Who’s gonna help me, who’s gonna help me?’”
But in Iowa, apparently FEMA is “just always gratified when they come and see how Iowans take care of each other.”
Though not quite as overtly racist as his past racist pronouncements, Louisiana’s political leaders (on both sides of the aisle) called out King’s comments (“Steve King is a white supremacist and I won’t stand for it,” Rep. Cedric Richmond tweeted).
The distinction in how King presents two communities–one black and lazy, the other white and industrious–in their response to disaster provides yet more evidence of how ideal climate policy would also address systemic racism. While people all across the country are experiencing climate change, who receives government aid is a political decision, one where racial biases can have a significant impact.
See, for example, how researchers found the federal response was quicker and largerwhen it came to Texas and Florida after 2017’s hurricanes, compared to the response in Puerto Rico. Harvey and Irma’s survivors received $100 million from FEMA within nine days of the hurricane strikes, while Maria’s survivors in Puerto Rico got only $6 million in that same amount of time. (And even that relief was apparently too much for our president, who in a February meeting said he “doesn’t want another single dollar going to the island.”)
Denying the reality of climate change hurts people, particularly those who lack the resources to easily rebuild after a disaster. And denying the reality of systemic racism when designing climate solutions hurts those who are most deserving of support. Both perpetuate a system of white supremacy that unfairly determines climate costs and policy benefits.
And that, in the words of Mary Robinson, is an evil injustice.