Annual Burke Lecture discusses racial climates

The annual Richard J. Burke Lecture brought the issues of racial discrimination and climate justice together for a conversation open to professors and students alike. 

Dr. Nancy Tuana, a professor of philosophy and women’s studies at Penn State University, was at the Oakland Center on Thursday, March 5 discussing racial climates.

The lecture began with Tuana speaking about climate change and how humans have impacted the climate. 

“Recent emissions of greenhouse gases coming from human activities are the highest in history,” she said. “We also know that recent climate changes have had widespread impacts both on humans as well as natural systems.”

The greenhouse effect is what is allowing life to flourish on Earth. The atmosphere is composed of various gases that keeps some of the sun’s warmth on Earth, keeping the Earth from being vastly colder than it is now. 

The greenhouse gases, Tuana said, are “intensifying” the warming effect on the planet, increasing global temperatures by 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1880s. The farming and foresting industry and the burning of fossil fuels are two big emitters of greenhouse gases. 

Due to the increase in temperature, places all over the world are experiencing extreme heat waves. Tuana said all but one of the hottest summers have happened since the turn of the century. 

She mentioned the heatwave that hit Europe in the summer of 2003. During that summer, the heat index entered the “danger zone,” where the heat and humidity went over 103 degrees for multiple days, resulting in the death of around 53,000 people.

“An increased intensity and frequency of heat waves have actually already killed more people than hurricanes, tornadoes and floods combined,” she said. 

According to Tuana, these heat waves are particularly difficult for the elderly and people in low income areas.

Tuana has been focusing on using intersectional analysis to show how oppression on the basis of race, sexuality and class impact climate justice. 

Racism was a key factor in the redlining that took place in the 1930s, where people in racially diverse neighborhoods were refused a refinanced mortgage by the government. 

Tuana said those formerly redlined neighborhoods are still primarily low income, with the majority of residents being black or latinx.

Since low income districts tend to have more asphalt and less greenery, the average temperature for these “heat islands” are on average almost 5 degrees warmer, with some cities reaching as much as 12 degrees warmer. 

Another example Tuana used during her lecture was Brazil and the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. 

The Amazon makes up 60 percent of the rainforest that exist on Earth and contains 20 percent of the total biodiversity of plant and animal life. It is often referred to as the lungs of the Earth.

Tuana said Brazil has lost about 17 percent of its rainforest due to deforestation. This is a worrisome sumber because once it reaches around 20-25 percent, it will stop producing the rain it needs and will degrade into a savannah.

This deforestation has links to class and racial abuse and discrimination. 

“One of the things I think is important to see is the ways in which the disposability of the rainforest in Brazil is also connected to the disposability of groups of people in Brazil,” Tuana said. 

The deforestation of the Amazon continues for the benefit of the charcoal industry and farming. A high percentage of workers in these industries are there due to poverty and modern slavery, where they are tricked or coerced into impossible situations by the large companies. 

According to Tuana, many people in modern slavery are people of black or mixed race. Racism is still very active in the north of Brazil and many black or mixed people are unable to obtain an education or a job. 

This has led to many of these people being coerced into unfree labor practices, such as the charcoal or farming industry.

After her presentation was over, Tuana opened the floor up to the audience for questions. Tuana’s presentation for the Richard J. Burke Lecture continued the legacy the lecture has set for opening up discussions between scholars and students about today’s most compelling issues.