Illustration by Shonagh Rae of victimhood
© Shonagh Rae

Once again, politicians are wailing about the weather. Just over a year ago, the east coast of the US was ravaged by Hurricane Sandy. Now North America is reeling from another bout of heavy snowstorms and record low temperatures. Meanwhile, the UK has been hit by floods and other parts of the world have struggled to cope with hurricanes, heatwaves and so on.

Little wonder that there has been hand-wringing from politicians about climate change and extreme weather shocks. Or that the World Economic Forum declared earlier this month that one of the key risks stalking the world is a renewed round of environmental shocks due to climate change: “Environmental risks, such as climate change, extreme weather events and water scarcity, have become more prominent since 2011, while health-related risks (pandemics and chronic disease) have become less so.”

But as those Davos luminaries ponder the problem of climate change, they should take a peek at a thought-provoking piece of research conducted by David McDermott Hughes, an anthropologist at Rutgers University. Five years ago, he travelled to Trinidad and Tobago to analyse how the chattering classes of that small island country discussed environmental problems in their national political debate and overseas dealings. Unsurprisingly, he found that the Caribbean state was deeply concerned about climate change. Trinidad and Tobago is surrounded by vast, capricious oceans and, in recent years, has suffered from hurricanes, droughts and fires. Since the islands are low-lying, there is also particular concern about the prospect of rising sea levels if, say, the polar ice caps were to melt.

When Hughes listened to the local debates, he noticed that the politicians repeatedly referred to themselves as “victims” of global warming. The assumption was that the Caribbean nation was being harmed by the reckless climate abuse of other wealthier countries, particularly in the “north” (ie the US and Europe).

But there is an irony here: Trinidad and Tobago is not just a passive victim of climate change but a perpetrator too. Most notably, the nation has offshore oil rigs and ranks 38th in the world in terms of oil production, producing more than Bahrain and Ecuador combined. In terms of carbon emissions per capita, the nation was the fourth worst offender in the world. However, this second point, Hughes discovered, was almost never explicitly acknowledged by politicians; instead, climate change was invariably discussed as something being imposed from beyond. That V-word – “victimhood” – dominated the debate.

In the global scheme of things, this example might seem trivial. And since Trinidad and Tobago is poor, its local population certainly has reasons to feel aggrieved about the behaviour of wealthier countries over many issues, including the environment. But what is perhaps most interesting is that it is not just Caribbean nations that talk about victimhood in relation to climate change; on the contrary, if you analyse how the European and US media cover extreme weather events on their own shores, that V-word keeps appearing.

When Hurricane Sandy hit, families living on the US east coast were described as victims of climate change; so too during the recent UK floods. Environmental change is presented as something we all suffer passively, rather than actively influence.

And that, in turn, illustrates a bigger question relating to the word “victim”, and the degree to which it has become a convenient cultural category in modern policy debates, both in the west and emerging markets. “Victimhood increasingly constitutes a ‘slot’ [in the climate change debate],” Hughes writes, referring to the work of Michel-Rolph Trouillot, a fellow anthropologist, who defined a cultural slot as “an enduring category of thought and inquiry”. As such, Hughes suggests, it echoes the way that “barbarian” or “savage” was used in medieval Europe – a convenient shorthand that conceals otherwise ambiguous or uncomfortable debates. “Like the ‘savage slot’ or the ‘tribal slot’, the victim slot artificially clarifies an inherently murky moral situation,” Hughes suggests. “It whitewashes – as innocent – societies, firms and industrial sectors otherwise clearly complicit with carbon emissions and climate change.”

To the credit of those Trinidad and Tobago politicians, Hughes reports that their rhetoric is starting to change – a touch. Groups such as the WEF are echoing this shift by engendering a stronger sense of collective responsibility about the environment among the corporate elite.

But the next time that a big weather shock hits, listen closely to the language politicians use – and, yes, journalists too. And if you hear the word “victim”, take note; not least because of the impact that this has on another “V” category: voters.

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