The Ugly History of Climate Determinism Is Still Evident Today – Scientific American

When you perform a Google Image search for “victims of climate change,” the faces you see are those of Black and brown people in the tropics. The images depict small reef islands in the Pacific Ocean, arid landscapes in East Africa and flooded villages in South Asia.

At some level, this association seems to make sense: Climate change disproportionately affects indigenous people and people of color, both within North America and around the world. The people and the nations least responsible for the problem are, in many cases, the most threatened.

But the search results also reflect the assumption, common among individuals in the global north—notably Europe and North America—that people in tropical climates are helpless victims who lack the capacity to cope with climate change. Beneath that assumption lies a long, ugly history of climate determinism: the racially motivated notion that the climate influences human intelligence and societal development. In the wake of George Floyd’s death, we need to reckon with systemic racism in all forms. Understanding how climate determinism unfolded historically can reveal the racial biases in present-day conversations about climate change. And it can better prepare us to address the very real inequalities of climate injury and adaptation—which I have seen firsthand while working with colleagues in the Pacific island nation of Kiribati over the past 15 years.

The story starts with the term “climate.” It comes from the ancient Greek word klima, which describes latitude. Greek philosophers deduced that the temperature at a given