Expensive DenialThe rising cost of ignoring climate change

This article appears in our 2017 Fall issue, Facts. Subscribe today!

In the aftermath of 45’s decision to exit the Paris Agreement—an accord between dozens of countries to work toward mitigating climate change through cutting carbon emissions—it is notable that the people who will pay the steepest price for climate-change denial and apathy are the world’s poorest women.

I take all of this personally as a word nerd who’s always cared about the environment, though I didn’t have easy access to clean air or green spaces growing up in the Bronx. Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens and her poetry deepened my appreciation for nature, along with a strong desire to protect it. Years later, I was honored to work on lessening the impact of climate change as a deputy press secretary at the Department of Energy during the Obama administration.

For all these reasons, I always think about how major policy decisions impact women and the poor. At the intersection of my identities as a journalist, writer, and scholar who grew up in poverty, I am most attuned to the marginalized narratives of women like me, who hold up half the sky even as the atmosphere thins against our palms.

I look for those narratives in the aspirational and objective reporting in the New York Times. Every now and then, I catch a glimpse of them, but more often, reading the Times as a woman of color can feel like being in a one-sided relationship. In this, the Times is a microcosm of the world at large.

Even in a time when facts have become a matter of partisan opinion, Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., publisher and owner of the New York Times Company, hired climate skeptic and conservative columnist Bret Stephens to join the mostly liberal roster of opinion columnists as part of an ongoing effort to offer balanced views to its mostly liberal readership. Other efforts include, but are not limited to, a failed solicitation to Times readers to “say something nice” about 45.

Stephens’s column led to a spike in canceled subscriptions and calls for the Times to stop promoting climate denial. But Stephens asserts that he doesn’t deny climate change so much as point out that science is sometimes anecdotal. These assertions are part of a fairly transparent but tenuous attempt by the Times to provide a “diversity” of viewpoints, which in the Trump era means conservative or right-of-center white men. 

It’s frustrating, however, because, as of this writing, the Times’s valuable and insightful public editor position has been eliminated. The irony is that the public editor role, which served as a bridge between readers and writers/editors, will no longer give the Times significant insight into challenging the white male privilege at the heart of Stephens’s assertions. Perhaps for a white male conservative writer previously employed at the Wall Street Journal, it’s easy to deny the realities of climate change without any accountability to disagreement. 

Stephens’s first column, “Climate of Complete Certainty,” compared the certainty Hillary Clinton’s campaign staff had in her ability to win with the way rational people think about climate change:  

We live in a world in which data convey authority. But authority has a way of descending to certitude, and certitude begets hubris…. Claiming total certainty about the science traduces the spirit of science and creates openings for doubt whenever a climate claim proves wrong…. Censoriously asserting one’s moral superiority and treating skeptics as imbeciles and deplorables wins few converts.

For the record, converts don’t interest me. I’m also not a fan of hubris. But I am a girl who loves a few good facts, especially when they’re germane to humanity. Here are a few from NASA: 

  • Approximately 97 percent of actively publishing climate scientists agree that climate change is real, as evidenced by global warming caused by human action that has led to an increase in greenhouse gases and sea-level rise. For what it’s worth, October 2016 data from the Pew Research Center measuring Americans’ views on climate data and global warming found that 20 percent of U.S. adults believe there’s no evidence of global warming and that “majorities of Americans appear skeptical of climate scientists.”
  • “Human-induced climate change requires urgent action,” according to the American Geophysical Union. “Humanity is the major influence on the global climate change observed over the past 50 years. Rapid societal responses can significantly lessen negative outcomes.” 
  • The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says, in part, “Scientific evidence for warming of the climate system is unequivocal.” 

It’s women and children who bear the brunt not only of climate change but also climate-change denial. The “feminization of poverty” provides important factual context: Women are often cut off from necessary wealth-building access to credit, land, and inheritance. Also, on average, women barely earn half of what men make, so although women comprise the global majority, they are living on less than a dollar a day. It’s the women and children who increasingly have to go further and further from their homes to get water or face the daily threat of drought who do not have the luxury of being in denial about climate shifts. In fact, climate-change policy debates and ideological wars are a luxury that only men like Stephens and people of color with privilege can afford. The real, unfortunate truth is that the world’s predominately female poor will feel the effects of any and all attempts to soften, silence, or deny climate change.

Global warming has already taken a toll on women and the poor, according to a 2009 UN Report connecting the dots between climate change and women’s rights. In 2013, a World Social Science Report on Changing Global Environments noted that women rely more on common property than men because gender limits access to private property resources:

As a result, when the commons decline or degrade, it tends to cost women more than men in terms of their time, income, nutrition and health (Agarwal, 2010). The degradation of local forests, for instance, increases the time women and girls take to collect basic needs, especially firewood—their single most important source of rural domestic energy. Globally, 2.4 billion households still use conventional biofuels, especially firewood, which they gather, for cooking and heating.

Climate change has already changed the lives of women and the poor, and the facts are all around us, as Bani Amor has detailed for Bitch Media in a four-part series. There are numerous international examples of disparity underscored by natural-disaster responses, whether in Ecuador, Haiti, or the United States, as illustrated in an April New York Times article that reported many South African women and families were already severely impacted by the worst drought in the country’s history. Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille said her city was in the midst of an urban emergency: “We have 120 days of usable water left. We have to litigate climate change every day.”

In the United States, poor women whose lives were upended by Hurricane Katrina not only had to contend with the traumatic realities that come with natural disasters—which are expected to become more frequent with climate change—but increased vulnerability to sexual assault. In Mississippi, studies showed that incidents of sexual assault went up after Katrina, in part because displaced women were made more vulnerable by the disaster. In New Orleans, another side effect of damages to the city’s infrastructure was that women experienced greater barriers to finding work because of the limited availability of childcare and affordable housing. 

Mainstream news consistently focuses on the perilous future of a warming planet, including the melting Ross Ice Shelf in West Antarctica, which could mean a catastrophic rise in sea levels for coastal cities by mid-century. But there is almost no acknowledgment of the direct impact it will have on poor communities living in coastal regions. The World Ocean Review estimates that about 1 billion people live in low-lying coastal areas around the world—many of them in Asia. 

As higher ground away from the ocean becomes more profitable—as in parts of Miami where sea level is expected to rise two feet in the coming decades—climate gentrification has led to displacing the poor who cannot afford to buy the now-coveted elevated, safe, dry real estate. “Whether it’s climate change or an eye for good real-estate returns, historically Black communities on higher ground are increasingly in the sights of speculators and investors,” wrote reporter Erika Bolstad for the energy-and-environment outlet E&E News in May. “Real estate investment may no longer be just about the next hot neighborhood, it may also now be about the next dry neighborhood.”

And as temperatures rise, research suggests that it is the urban poor who will suffer most. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has studied extensively how climate change will continue to compound existing poverty and the negative impact it has had on the health, economic stability, and quality of life for one billion people around the world. A June 2003 report coauthored by the OECD titled “Poverty and Climate Change: Reducing the Vulnerability of the Poor through Adaptation” stated, “A direct effect [of climate change] is an increase in temperature-related illnesses and deaths. Prolonged intense heat waves coupled with humidity may increase mortality and morbidity rates, particularly among the urban poor and the elderly.”

In addition, a 2015 issue of Scientific American, quoting the World Bank ahead of that yearʼs Conference of the Parties meeting in Paris, noted, “Without policies to protect the world’s most vulnerable from crop failure, natural disasters, waterborne diseases and other impacts of climate change, 100 million more people could sink into poverty by 2030.”

But why should anyone care about what seems like a distant, far-off catastrophe—particularly when deniers like Stephens suggest that it’s better to have a healthy debate about the merits of actual evidence than to prepare for a scientific reality? 

Adverse effects of climate change are diverse. During a visit to West Virginia with former Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz in the final months of my job at the Energy Department, he spoke about the benefits of “clean coal” technology, or carbon capture, which allows for capturing carbon emissions from coal before releasing them into the atmosphere. Secretary Moniz noted that the clean-energy revolution was already underway, and he was right. This increase in clean coal though, poses a challenge for Trump, who promised to bring back coal jobs lost in the deindustrialization era of the early 2000s. Not only are those jobs not likely to return, Trump’s Fiscal Year 2018 budget proposal plans to sharply decrease funding for science research and development, and would also eliminate 17,000 jobs for scientists and engineers in the process. 

Jane Mayer’s excellent 2016 book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right studies the long game of well-known wealthy libertarian figures such as Charles and David Koch, who were some of President Barack Obama’s fiercest opponents on a number of issues, most notably regulatory actions on fossil fuels. Despite bipartisan support for action on carbon emissions, Mayer writes: 

“The problem for this group was that by 2008, the arithmetic of climate change presented an almost unimaginable challenge. If the world were to stay within the range of carbon emissions that scientists deemed reasonable in order for atmospheric temperatures to remain tolerable through the mid-century, 80 percent of the fossil fuel industry’s reserves would have to stay unused in the ground. In other words, scientists estimated that the fossil fuel industry owned roughly five times more oil, gas, and coal than the planet could safely burn.”

Between 2005 and 2008, Mayer reports that the Koch Brothers spent nearly $25 million fighting climate reform. She presents research that estimates more than half a billion dollars was spent to wage a “massive campaign to manipulate and mislead the public about the threat posed by climate change.” She goes on to explain that this “was, in essence, a corporate lobbying campaign disguised as a tax-exempt, philanthropic endeavor” funded by some 140 conservative foundations. 

The Trump administration has promoted this agenda by rolling back efficiency standards and regulations to make it easier for big businesses to burn as much oil and wreak as much havoc on the environment for profit as they like. The appointment of Scott Pruitt as Secretary of the Environmental Protection Agency is evidence of a blatant effort to impede progress—the EPA has stripped its website of evidence and research related to climate-change data and is preparing to lay off important researchers. 

At the heart of climate-change denial is a multibillion-dollar strategy to help rich, white men get richer at the expense of poor women. Hiding, downplaying, or erasing scientific data about the realities of climate change empowers the fossil-fuel industry to unleash carbon polluting chemicals in the air in the name of boosting the economy and jobs. This accelerates our path to a world in which women and their children must fight drought, natural disasters, displacement, further marginalization, and hunger. 

It is a fallacy to claim, as Bret Stephens and the New York Times has, that climate-change evidence is just a collection of stories. It’s not a matter of whether climate change will increase the burdens and hardships of women and the poor around the world, but when; it’s certainly only a matter of time before those burdens overwhelm or kill them. 

Every single idea, sentiment, or suggestion that climate change may not be as bad as you think flies directly in the face of the experience of survivors of natural disasters that have worsened over time. It is to deny the fact that poor people who live below sea level are deserving of a climate-resiliency plan as much as their wealthier counterparts in the Pacific Northwest or the San Francisco Bay Area. It is to have the privilege of sitting on a high perch overlooking a horizon with the looming clouds of destruction rolling in as you write about a inevitability from which you will almost definitely be immune—if not forever, at least for as long as money and time will allow. 

This article was published in Facts Issue #76 | Fall 2017
by Joshunda Sanders
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Joshunda Sanders is a Bronx native and the author of four books including two published last year, All City, a novella, and a memoir, The Beautiful Darkness: A Handbook for Orphans. She lives in New York City.

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