To honour Tutu's memory, climate leaders, scientists, and activists not only have to address climate apartheid on a global level, but a local one as well.
The recently deceased Archbishop Desmond Tutu has been eulogised for his struggle to bring down Apartheid, South Africa’s violently enforced racial segregation, a painful episode in the nation’s past.
In the 21st century he also acknowledged another form of apartheid that would only worsen in the future. Tutu called this climate apartheid.
Tutu’s passing serves a juncture to reflect on this concept and how it is manifest already with climate change and will only worsen as only the wealthy nations and/or segments of a society would be able to afford food, water, and electricity, to run an air conditioner or refrigerator.
Climate apartheid and the anthropocene
Tutu coined the term climate change apartheid in the 2007/08 UN Human Development Report. The concept is as follows: “Climate apartheid emerges from complex exchanges between racism and environmental exploitation.”
When Tutu coined the term climate apartheid, he was discussing the divide between developed nations and the developing world. The former would have the resources to cope with climate change, from ACs to building dikes and dams. The latter, particularly island nations, would not.
Back then Tutu sought to set the agenda of bringing the divide between developed and developing nations into the discussion of the Anthropocene.
The scientist Paul Crutzen defined the Anthropocene as the temporal juncture when humankind achieved the agency to modify and influence Earth’s bio-geophysical systems in fundamental and detrimental ways.
The starting point for the Anthropocene is usually marked with the development of the coal-fueled, steam-powered engine in Britain in the late 18th century. The Anthropocene began when modern industry threatened nature, creating risks that undermine modern society.
Climate apartheid suggests particular races are especially vulnerable during this geological epoch. Iraq serves as a valuable study of such anthropogenic insecurity resulting in climate apartheid. Here, climate apartheid means people living live in the same area experience extreme weather differently.
Climate apartheid in Iraq
In an article for the UK-based Independent in 2016, Richard Hall wrote “in the future, only the rich will be able to escape the unbearable heat from climate change. In Iraq, it’s already happening.”
Iraq serves as a template of climate apartheid, where only the wealthy could afford food, water, and electricity to run an air conditioner, particularly in Basra.
The city houses one of the world’s largest oil fields, but the average citizen does not benefit from this wealth, making it akin to the Niger Delta. Instead most of the people of Basra suffer from the oil industry in terms of the pollution created by the fields.
Second, Basra is located in an area that has witnessed some of the hottest temperatures in recorded history.
Third, it has racial minorities. In this publication, I had written about the socio-economic discrimination and political hurdles faced by the black Iraqi community, descendants of the Middle East slave trade and whose ancestors rose up against captivity during the Abbasid Empire in a revolt known as the Zanj rebellion from 869 to 883 CE.
In the present, this community of approximately two million is primarily located in the Basra province. They seek to overcome their marginalisation, advocating civil rights, government recognition of the community, and anti-discrimination laws to address the racism they endure. Most continue to hold menial jobs, serving as cleaners or musicians and dancers.
The area around Basra has already proven to be particularly vulnerable to extreme weather. During the 2019 summer heatwave, for example, cities like Basra and Kuwait City in neighboring Kuwait were affected by some of the highest temperatures on earth.
Already in 2018 and 2019 mass protests erupted in Basra to highlight the city’s unreliable water services, leading to clashes with government security forces.
In Basra sea-level rise would inundate households, leading to dislocation. Sea-level rise has already led to saltwater intrusion in Basra’s canals and streams, 300 kilometers upward through Shatt al-Arab waterway, killing crops, livestock, and fish.
To exacerbate matters the political ecology under Saddam Hussein’s rule left Iraq particularly vulnerable. Hussein ordered the draining of the southern marshes, the site of an antigovernment uprising since 1991. This order led to the disappearance of several freshwater lakes and increases in soil salinity. Even with attempts to restore the marshes, Saddam’s actions left a legacy that made it easier for saltwater intrusion from the Gulf to Basra.
Tutu’s death forced me to ponder how would Iraq’s black community fare in the face of climate change. Projecting into the future amidst these dire scenarios, this community, whose fate is already precarious and invisible, would suffer the brunt of these transformations due to climate.
Dealing with climate apartheid
Tutu reminds us that nations and collective security institutions need to acknowledge environmental risks to these vulnerable demographics that are divided by socio-economic status and race.
Political leaders and civil society, both national and transnational, from the UN to local NGOs, need to develop anthropogenic strategies, reimagining either viruses or floods and droughts due to climate change as transnational environmental challenges, which not only undermine national security, but pose particular risks to vulnerable demographics.
One method to address this risk is for urban planning to not only address climate change, but also acknowledge racial inequalities in cities and towns, such as the case in Basra.
Cities now depend on energy-intensive air conditioning that releases carbon, contributing to climate change, or the use of cement, which absorbs heat and is energy intensive to produce. Cities in Iraq and the Gulf for example should adopt the use of traditional wind towers that have captured breezes since time antiquity in the region, building with white-washed stone walls, and designing spaces in urban setting that provide shade.
Reflecting on Tutu’s life, he fought against an Apartheid that divided cities, towns, and neighborhoods in South Africa. To honour is memory, climate leaders, scientists, and activists not only have to address climate apartheid on a global level, but a local one as well.
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