An Afghan refugee in his early twenties sleeping on a rooftop in Athens, Greece. A Latina prospective college student in Houston who studies by a rationed air conditioner. A small child in Nigerian heat who lives near to the fire of a natural gas line. A middle-aged farmer in Guatemala who works in the sun for $5 an hour and tends a field that yields less every year. An Indian woman and her husband who live and sweat on a construction site with their small children. An elderly Black man in New York who spends his days alone by a window fan watching TV on his phone. On every corner of the globe, communities of color are suffering not from a climate crisis of the future, but a growing catastrophe that lines the pockets of the colonizer-minded industries who exploit their poverty for cheap labor under life-threatening conditions.
The 2020 New York Times article, “This is Inequity at a Boiling Point” by Somini Sengupta, spins the above stories into a cohesive narrative that spans the world over and pulls more land and people into its grip by the year. To consider climate change a crisis of the future is to act with the privilege of a people with both the economic and geographic advantage of ignoring the yearly increases in temperature that mean less viable land to produce food and more heat-related injuries and deaths. Those without this advantage? Overwhelmingly the impoverished or elderly black and brown people of nations around the world with a marginal say in actually decreasing the carbon emissions that accelerate the loss of their homes and lives.
The last year recorded record July temperatures of 125 degrees Fahrenheit in Baghdad and 100 degrees above the Arctic Circle. While the empirical data shows that temperatures are indisputably rising, it’s the striking images and the personal testimonies of people suffering right this second that show the severity of the damage we’ve already done and continue to inflict. Whether an elderly Black man in New York facing the heat alone by a window fan or the pearling sweat on the brow of an Indian woman working until she’s weak, the images shatter the mythical ground between climate change and climate catastrophe.
In most cases, the people of the story are afflicted not just by the rising temperatures, but by abusive employment or poverty at the hands of the industries that contribute. Most stark perhaps, are the images of a family in Nigeria who cannot afford to live anywhere but in the cheap land surrounding the flares of natural gas wells. While the wells extract fossil fuels that will one day contribute to the greenhouse effect that’s slowly raising temperatures around the world, the constant flares of the wells increase the immediate heat by a measured 22 degrees Fahrenheit. The Indian woman who labors in the heat of a construction site to pay off survival debt is limited to breaks of only 5 minutes at a time — at risk of losing employment and housing.
Sengupta’s planet-encompassing article serves to paint a picture with words and images of crisis that’s not so much looming as it is crashing — crashing into the farmers and minimum wage workers who’ve done nothing to cause it, not even ignore the wave. While the picture of our world in crisis today is certainly compelling to action, the image also begs the question of how much worse it can get. How many more people will be swept into the ongoing catastrophe while those with the privilege of viewing climate change as a problem of the future continue to believe they can deal with it in the future.