As long as we can “buy” climate solutions,  climate elitism will prevail

This is the second in a series of five op-eds by Nani Jansen Reventlow published by the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant in October 2023. Read the original Dutch version here.

After a summer of extreme weather, we are geared for an autumn of high-level climate events. With the 28th edition of the UN Climate Conference (COP) stoked in controversy for its Emirati presidency and the ongoing EU Parliamentary hearings on Wopke Hoekstra’s disputable nomination as the EU’s climate commissioner, climate elitism – rather than climate justice – is once again the main item on the agenda.  

It’s in this context that just a few weeks ago Climate Week wrapped up. An annual summit that takes place alongside the UN General Assembly in New York City each year, Climate Week brings together international leaders from business, government, and civil society to “showcase global climate action”.  

The theme for this year’s Climate Week was “We Can. We Will”, a slogan that conceals the inequalities and systemic injustices that compound the climate crisis. We must question which “we” these narratives refer to. We are not all the same when it comes to the degree of responsibility for the historical, cumulative impact of environmental degradation, nor when it comes to experiencing the effects of the climate crisis. If there’s anything “we” have learned as racialised people in Europe as climate rose to a central point in the public debate, it is that responses to the climate crisis that fail to adopt an intersectional approach will not provide solutions for us. On the contrary: blanket “solutions” to the climate “emergency” often result in adverse effects for racialised and otherwise marginalised communities. This includes the so-called “green deal” Hoekstra will now oversee.  

Environmental racism is a reality in Europe and so is eco-classism. Yet across the region, including in the Netherlands, we have a climate movement that is dominated by white, middle-class people which defines the narrative and priorities around climate. These are focused on the problems that future generations “will inherit”, while scarcely paying attention to the communities whose children are already dying from the negative impacts of the climate crisis. They focus on “green transition”, while the social, racial, and economic dimensions of the climate crisis and its consequences continue to be sidelined.  

This lack of intersectional thinking in the climate movement, as well as climate policy making, results in disparate access to “green” innovations and climate mitigation policies. Often, access to “climate solutions” is determined by socio-economic status, as well as race, nationality, and gender. This compounds existing inequalities, meaning entire sections of the population are cut off from these measures, and even harmed by them.  

Take housing for example. The climate crisis and the high cost of living affect us all, but working-class neighbourhoods are feeling the effects the most. Studies have shown that we cannot meet energy or climate targets by demolishing old and “inefficient” housing. Instead, we should refurbish existing homes, making them more energy efficient. But while communities on the front lines, such as the Rotterdam group Recht op de Stad and Verdedig Noord in Amsterdam are fighting to ensure their homes are adequately insulated against both more extreme weather and greater costs of living, local councils and predatory property developers are purposefully leaving social housing to rot, driving people out of their homes to rebuild them as green housing for white families.   

Meanwhile, lenders are offering EUR 50.000 more in loans for houses that are more “energy friendly”, and cheaper loans for electric vehicles. These are unaffordable for many, and put the onus on individuals to be able to “afford” green, and thus “do their part” for the environment to meet climate targets.  

As American writer Rebecca Solnit puts it in “Not Too Late”, “capitalism encourages us to imagine ourselves as consumers rather than as citizens”. Climate elitism is upheld by the same capitalist logic which lays the burden on consumers to purchase their way of out eco-disaster, all the while reinforcing and reproducing the structural harms that got us here in the first place. As long as climate solutions and mitigations in Europe are something we can “buy”, climate elitism, and not climate justice, will prevail. We cannot have climate justice without racial, social, and economic justice. And we cannot achieve any of these without the meaningful participation of those directly affected by – and at the centre of resisting – these interlocking systems of oppression. Because, as Brazilian ecologist and unionist Chico Mendes put it: “environmentalism without class struggle is just gardening.”