America is on fire, literally. Wildfires are currently raging across a number of US states. Thousands of residents are evacuating their homes as smoke has blanketed the skies. This comes as millions of residents western states in the US have seen record temperatures scorch their area in the past week.
In the coming days, another record heatwave is expected to hit many of these same areas. These events reflect how changing environmental conditions present both immediate and long-term existential threats to millions of people. Worldwide, this number could reach into the billions, as wildfires, flooding, and hurricanes can threaten to kill people and displace communities across the globe.
With such visibly tragic events happening throughout the U.S., it would probably be expected that the country would be quite concerned about rising temperatures and raging wildfires. Citizens would put this at or near the top of their immediate policy concerns. Politicians would also treat this as a serious crisis, proposing policies on reducing emissions long-term and diverting funding towards addressing current environmental threats. This, however, does not appear to be the case in the United States right now. Instead, the greatest concern among most policymakers, and even citizens, is over critical race theory.
Critical race theory has, until now, been a relatively obscure academic theory about how to conceive of racism, which posits that 1) race is not a biological fact but is instead a social construction, 2) racism is an inherited, ordinary feature of society, 3) racial hierarchy is primarily the product of systems, which imbed racism in laws and public policy, 4) racial progress is accommodated only when it converges with the interests of white people, and 5) lived experience, and not only data, serves as relevant evidence to scholarship.
Critical race theory has become more widely accepted among Democrats, the country’s center-left party, and even more strongly detested among Republicans, the country’s center-right party. Republicans in particular have become gravely concerned that critical race theory may be taught in schools, treating this as its own existential crisis.
In Florida, the Governor and State Board of Education recently worked to push through a ban on teaching critical race theory in classrooms. Locally, public hearings over the possibility that teachers and schools may, or may not, have been teaching critical race theory are taking place from cities in the west to cities in the east. On the other side, Democrats have been quick to pounce on this, noting that Republicans’ concerns over critical race theory are overblown. Articles and opinion columns are filling the pages of major news sites, arguing that Republicans’ demonizing of critical race theory is aimed at creating hysteria over an issue that isn’t really an issue.
Regardless of the place of critical race theory in American society, why has this become one of the central political debates of 2021? As climate change and greater environmental harm is currently threatening the lives of citizens and destroying communities, and will continue to do so under current conditions, why is a single theoretical concept of how to define racism the defining feature of the current American political landscape? In a recent Politico poll, 35 percent of respondents had never heard of critical race theory and another 17 percent had heard of it and had no opinion. Only 8 percent had a very favorable view. In the same poll, 36 percent of respondents stated that passing a bill to address climate change should be a top priority for Congress, and another 25 percent said that it is an important priority. In another poll, conducted by Pew Research, 65 percent of U.S. respondents believed the government was doing too little to address climate change.
The United States is one of the worst polluters on the planet. The country is the 12th highest emitter of carbon dioxide per capita and accounts for nearly 15 percent of all global CO2 emissions. Since 1750, the United States has led the world in CO2 emissions levels, by a wide margin. Environmental impact in the US doesn’t end with emissions either. The country ranks 3rd globally in terms of per-capita waste production.
One would think that these events, ravaging the American landscape and putting lives in immediate danger, would create significant incentive for policymakers and citizens to work towards advancing environmental policies to improve the immediate and long-term conditions in the United States. Yet these events have only received cursory attention compared to pages and pages of debates, new policies, and meetings from coast to coast over critical race theory. Lawmakers seem unaware that these events are even happening.
Compare this to the European Union, where lawmakers recently released a full plan, along with policy goals, aimed at addressing climate change. By 2030, the bloc is set to reduce emissions levels by 55 percent from 1990 levels and a ban on the sale of new internal combustion cars by 2035. The EU has also proposed a carbon border tax on imports from countries which do not meet certain environmental standards. The bloc has even put in place the “Just Transition Fund,” aimed at providing community-focused plans to transition fossil-fuel dependent areas towards new social and economic models which reduce environmental impact while upholding positive local conditions.
While the EU has faced its own struggles in addressing environmental concerns, the bloc has put forth a much clearer vision for environmental policy goals, treated environmental problems with much more urgency, and have advanced clear policy solutions.
At a time when lives and communities are under threat from a changing climate and poor environmental management in the United States, American policymakers seem largely unfazed. Instead, the focus is on an obscure theory about how to define race. The fact that the American political arena has turned into a place where squabbles over minor pieces of the identity politics culture war that many citizens have hardly heard of or care about may feel unsurprising to many. However, this can’t become the new normal in the United States.
Just as the European Union is showing the urgency at which climate change and broader environmental challenges must be addressed, American politicians are turning a blind eye as their fellow citizens and communities burn. Environmental policies aimed at reducing emissions, pollution, and waste need to become a priority for the US, or the fire will continued to rage.