Climate change is deepening systems of inequality. A vicious cycle is already occurring and will only strengthen if we do not address it, one in which disadvantaged groups disproportionately suffer the negative impacts of climate change and that suffering, in turn, increases subsequent inequality. Disadvantaged populations are often more exposed to impacts and often do not have the same protective nets and systems in place to draw upon when recovering from damages.
Inequality also presents significant challenges to addressing climate change. When day-to-day living is not a struggle, it’s a lot easier to prioritize addressing the climate crisis. However, if you are struggling to get food on the table, to keep your children warm, to pay your mortgage, to access health care, or if your individual rights are constantly under threat, then those day-to-day, all-too-real struggles will likely take priority. In short, if staying alive in the present is a struggle, that’s where the focus will be. If there is comfort and stability in the present, we have the capacity to look at the future.
Inequality threads with climate change even more intimately, however. Inequality is at the root of the climate crisis. The very systems that disenfranchise populations and exploit humans all over the world are the same systems exploiting the natural world for personal human gain. These systems prioritize the power and wealth of a few over the health, rights and stability of many..
All of this means one thing: to address the climate crisis, we must address inequality. Reframed to highlight the incredible opportunity of this moment: successfully addressing the climate crisis will also blessedly involve successfully unearthing and dismantling the self-perpetuating systems of inequality and exploitation that currently thread throughout the world, leading to human rights abuses, the stripping of nature and intense poverty. We must finally build a way of life that honors all of life – all humans, all other species and the Earth on which we all depend – with respect.
How can you be part of this work?
Each of us perpetuates inequality, in ways small and large. Reckoning with this fact isn’t easy, but it’s work we must do. As we begin, it helps to remind ourselves that we are part of a system. We are not individually responsible or culpable. We did not create the system. But we do participate. And within that participation lies our agency to change the system.
First, examine your daily life and choices. Where might you be providing fuel to systems of inequality? Where are your clothes made? How about your home goods? When you must purchase something, consider researching the chain of production. If, wherever possible, we can shift the dollars we spend from systems of inequality to systems that promote fair pay and good working conditions, systems of production that honor all of life and are not resource-intensive, our choices can start to build a different world.
Better still, can we shift dollars from purchasing unneeded items to funding programs that directly address inequality?
Second, look to your community. I’ve realized just how important it is for me to recognize my privilege and open my eyes to the tremendous inequality at all levels of society, including in my local community.
Where do you see inequality? Where are people struggling to make ends meet? If you have funds to give, consider doing so. If you have time to give, consider doing so. If all who had extra gave to those who do not, powerful changes would occur.
How can you work to address the systems at the root of the inequality? This article from UC Berkeley’s Othering & Belonging Institute highlights six key policies research has demonstrated to be particularly important: raising minimum wage, expanding Earned Income Tax, building assets for working families, investing in education, a more progressive tax code and ending residential segregation. Learning about these policies and then working to support them locally and nationally is a great place to begin when addressing the system perpetuating inequality.
And, very importantly, we must not lose sight of what is perhaps the greatest inequality contained within the climate crisis: the fact that future generations will suffer by far the worst impacts. Those with little to no voice in present decisions will live into the consequences of those decisions.
The work to address this inequality is twofold. First, wherever possible, we must incorporate young people into discussions and decisions related to climate change. Young people should be sitting around the table at meetings from the local to the international level.
Second, we must all start considering the rights of those future generations in our decisions at this moment and treating those rights with respect. The Great Law of the Iroquois Nation urged its people to make decisions today that will benefit the seventh generation from now. We would do well to employ similar foresight immediately.
Exploring inequality with young people
As you engage in this work, bring your children along for the ride.
Discuss inequality with your children. As you open your eyes and really look at your community (and then extend outward into the rest of the world), encourage your children to do the same, in an age-appropriate manner.
Children are often great leaders in exploring inequality. When your children notice inequality, as children are quick to do, talk about it. With very young children, you do not need to dive into all the nuances involved, but you can certainly discuss the fact that unfairness is all around us, that people are swayed by wanting more money and power, and that there are things we can do to help each other and work for a more just world.
An essential step in reducing inequality is to address biases and prejudice, both within yourself and with children. Filtering opportunity through pre-existing biases reinforces inequality.
In addressing biases and prejudice, we must begin within ourselves. We all have inherited and hold biases that shape how we interact with others. It is never too late to question these biases. And it is critical that we do so if our children are to learn a different way. A recent study from the University of Washington clearly demonstrated that children learn biases from adults, including from watching our nonverbal treatment of others. The more we shine the light of awareness on how we see and treat those who are different from us, the better.
Search out children’s books that explore bias or tell stories from a powerfully unbiased perspective. Teaching for Change offers this thorough guide for selecting anti-bias books. Reading books with biases can also be helpful, if the biases are thoughtfully explored. ADL, a leading anti-hate organization, has a great piece here on talking about biases and prejudice with young people. The piece explores many nuances, such as the importance in not focusing only on what makes us similar, as we must learn to value differences.
Young children have the opportunity to approach the world very differently from how we have. If we challenge our own biases and consciously work to avoid passing them to our children, we make a great start in cultivating a less-biased world.
Explore privilege – as Vox leader Ezra Klein would ask us to – as a matter of luck. Yes, many have worked very, very hard for what they have today. That being said, those lives of hard work were fueled by circumstances and many of those circumstances came down to luck. None of us are more worthy than others. Explore how we can increase access to opportunity for all.
And remember, young minds are inherently curious and creative, particularly when faced with something that doesn’t make sense or seem just. Encourage both curiosity and creativity. And empower young minds to make a difference as they question the circumstances that perpetuate inequality. Support them in choosing a different way.