A close look at subtle (and not so subtle) examples of racism in energy and climate policy, by Todd Moss, founder of the Energy for Growth Hub and blogger at Eat More Electrons.
Racism is a really uncomfortable and difficult topic in development. Over the short span of my career, I’ve seen lots of progress: not long ago it was common for agencies to fundraise by broadcasting pictures of starving African children with flies on their eyes.
For many Americans of a certain age (ahem), their primary reference point for anything about Ethiopia was Live Aid, a celebrity concert for famine relief, all about white people saving helpless black people. The lyrics of Band Aid’s ‘Do they know it's Christmas’ – a top song in 1984 featuring George Michael, Bono, Simon LeBon, Phil Collins, Sting, and Boy George – are beyond cringeworthy.
Thankfully, dehumanising ideas and imagery like that are far less common today – and far more likely to be called out. Many aspects of the development industry still have patronising overtones undergirded by racism and serve to reinforce racist notions of white saviourism.
In my experience, however, that self-awareness is sometimes lacking in the energy and climate policy worlds.
Many aspects of the development industry still have patronising overtones undergirded by racism and serve to reinforce racist notions of white saviourism
Roger Pielke, Jr. has a disturbing recent post, Don’t Play Footsie with Racism, that excoriates academic papers that use implausible climate scenarios to generate scary dystopian futures. These scenarios ‘[Raise] the specter of climate-caused mass migration, explicitly characterized as black and brown people coming your way, [as] a form of climate advocacy dressed up as science that traffics in nationalist and even racist impulses.’
Worse, he suggests it’s infiltrating mainstream media. For example, Pielke cites a New York Times feature story hooked to such academic studies that are ‘full of pictures of poor brown people (and only poor brown people) heading to the US southern border. The imagery evoked not just the old academic idea of climate determinism, but as well, the common racist tropes used by US politicians and media to scare citizens about immigration.’
Pielke concludes: ‘This is not subtle.’
I’ve encountered something similar – subtle and not so subtle – in working on energy poverty and climate finance. Here are some examples.
Blatantly racist example: ‘We can’t afford for everyone to live our lifestyles’
That’s a real quote from a private debate with a major American climate funder over whether it was good or bad for energy sector emissions to rise in poor countries. I had argued that the starting point should be getting everyone to enjoy abundant energy because of the benefits to living standards and greater job opportunities.
His response was: ‘Sorry, we just can’t afford for everyone to live our lifestyles.’ In his view, rising energy consumption (and the higher income it enables) is not a laudable goal, but rather a threat to our environment.
So much wrong here, but let’s start with:
Who exactly is ‘we’? I guess he didn’t consider non-Westerners part of us.
Who gets to decide? The presumption of who decides who gets access to which technologies is revealing.
Who is the real threat to the planet? The problem’s not in Africa. No plausible scenario exists where the region’s emissions blow the global carbon budget. In fact, the baseline is so low that even if the continent tripled its power use using only gas, the additional emissions would be equivalent to just 0.6% of the world total (the maths are here).
The presumption of who decides who gets access to which technologies is revealing
At the time, I dismissed the comment as probably sloppy wording or maybe just one clueless individual. But when I shared the story with climate philanthropy colleagues, I was surprised to hear that such a view is not uncommon. I hope that’s wrong, or at least becoming rare.
But I’m sorry, if you believe others on the planet don’t deserve the energy Europeans or Americans have just because they polluted first, then it’s time to look in the mirror.
Softer racist example: ‘Lights are plenty for those people’
That’s also a real quote. I’d been pitching the Modern Energy Minimum, a new target of 1,000 kWh per person per year as a goal to raise global ambitions beyond the current ‘modern energy access’ target of just 50–100 kWh – which is enough for lights, charging a phone, and not much else.
An academic at a prominent university openly objected to 1,000 kWh as too high and declared that many poor people around the world were happy enough with lighting. He didn’t seem to have a problem making such a statement, even though he lives in a country where average electricity consumption is 13x our proposed minimum.
He also seemed unaware how his statement sounded.
The conversation reminded me of the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’. That phrase was coined by the late Michael Gerson, a speechwriter for George W. Bush and later a columnist for the Washington Post who is the most beautiful and morally compelling nonfiction writer I’ve ever read. Gerson originally meant it for education standards, but he was a fierce advocate for global development too and one of the architects of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).
Low expectations infect climate modelling when they assume little to no future energy consumption growth for entire regions
In 2013, he wrote in favour of President Obama’s Power Africa initiative: ‘Encouraging energy production also appeals to the way Africans increasingly view themselves – not as the objects of compassion but as the generators of wealth.’ So I’d like to think Gerson would agree that low expectations for energy use by Africans is also soft bigotry.
Sadly, I’ve found that ‘lights are enough for those people’ is not an uncommon opinion either, although rarely expressed so overtly. Such a view is implicit in any programme that defines standards of success differently for different groups – such as considering a solar lantern sufficient energy or ignoring the real energy needs of a warming planet (it’s not lights, it’s air conditioning!)
Low expectations also infect climate modelling when they assume little to no future energy consumption growth for entire regions. My colleagues have a terrific analysis of what’s wrong with modelling when Africans are excluded. Isn’t that a form of soft bigotry too?
Also racist IMO: Emissions ok for me but not for thee
The US, Germany, and others go through contortions to explain why burning coal and gas are energy security at home, but a climate threat in foreign countries. That’s certainly hypocritical. It’s also – given the disparity in global power and finance where certain countries create rules applicable to others but not themselves – arguably racist.
Uzodinma Iweala, head of the Africa Center, calls the differential policies toward fossil fuel use a form of international redlining, the racist practice of some US banks refusing mortgages to black homeowners. Iweala writes:
‘A finance ban that only applies to poor countries is a textbook example of what Robert Bullard, the academic known as the father of environmental justice, has termed “environmental racism” – “any policy, practice or directive that differentially affects or disadvantages (whether intended or unintended) individuals, groups or communities based on race.” You could also call it a form of global “redlining.”’
A plea for more self-awareness…
Watching Live Aid now, even if it might have saved lives, is deeply uncomfortable. I worry that some of the arguments used to end energy poverty and fight climate change will also look decidedly uncomfortable soon – if they don’t already seem so today.
The racism is bad enough on its own. No instrumental impact should be needed to explain why it’s just wrong. Yet I suspect some might quietly believe that the climate crisis is soooo bad – ‘we just can’t afford for everyone to live our lifestyles’ – that a little racism is an unfortunate by-product of saving the planet. (Same goes for anti-population or anti-immigration activists.)
I suspect some might quietly believe that the climate crisis is soooo bad that a little racism is an unfortunate by-product of saving the planet
No. Such attitudes have real-world damage beyond moral failure. Any framing of consumption by the poor as a threat leads to all kinds of counterproductive policies, such as focusing on the weak rather than the major emitters. Accepting a two-tier world of abundant energy for half the people and solar lights for the rest is a recipe for inequality, misery, and instability.
And, as a former US diplomat, I cannot overstate how such patronising attitudes and carbon hypocrisy are killing any chance of a common cause to fight our big global challenges.
Whether you care about ending poverty, curbing emissions, or countering Russian and Chinese influence, racism will never be your ally.
Todd Moss is founder and executive director of the Energy for Growth Hub. He is a non-resident fellow at the Center for Global Development, where he previously worked as chief operating officer. He has also served as US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. His substack is Eat More Electrons, where this article was first published.