Interview with Dr Andrew Baldwin, on race, climate change and the figure of the climate migrant / refugee.

Dr Andrew Baldwin is an Associate Professor at the University of Durham. In this interview, we discuss the argument of his latest book, ‘The Other of Climate Change: Racial Futurism, Migration, Humanism’.

Andrew, tell us about your research interests. What are you working on at the moment?

I’ve always been concerned with the quality of innocence that attaches to environmental concerns, especially efforts to save or protect ‘nature’. This is especially the case today for climate change. My concern is that categories of ‘nature’, ‘climate’ and ‘environment’ are scrubbed clean of the ‘locational’, or identificatory, imperatives that motivate action to ‘save’ this or that ‘environment’. For example, it’s always been hard for me not to notice the way such concerns are often unconsciously, explicitly or implicitly about race. So, my longstanding research questions more or less circulate around these concerns:  What is the relationship between race and nature? How does ‘whiteness’, as form of structural power, as opposed to an identity or subjectivity, get reproduced through environmental political discourses? How is ‘whiteness’ adapting to climate change?

My current research has taken a sharp turn recently. Whereas over the last 15 years or so questions about nature in Geography (my home discipline) have been concerned with questions of relationality and materiality, I never found these debates especially fruitful for thinking about race and racism, so I tended to avoid them, and, instead, positioned my work in relation to debates about power, knowledge and biopolitics. But nowadays, I find myself increasingly drawn to psychoanalytic theory to understand how race and racism shape contemporary environmental political discourses, especially climate change and the Anthropocene. Concepts like the Other, desire, the unconscious, anxiety, disavowal, imaginary and the Real all seem really pertinent for understanding how race, whiteness, and Blackness converge around questions of climate change. These are the discussions those of us in the humanities and interpretive social sciences need to be having.

And yet, it seems to me, race literacy within the domains of climate science and policy is pretty poor. As the global far right continues its relentless ascent, my gut tells me it won’t be long before climate change becomes one of its rallying cries. In certain versions of eco-fascism, it already is. So, I think we need a more expansive discussion about race and climate change, greater literacy about race in the realms of climate science and policy. For me, psychoanalytic theory offers a really useful vocabulary for fostering this discussion.  

But in many ways, my turn to psychoanalytic theory is a little scary because it kind of goes in a direction opposite to what many in Geography seem to be taking. Whereas nowadays everyone seems to want to talk about materiality, affect, and relationality, I’m much more interested in signification. Fine, questions about materiality are important, but I’m more interested in what climate change politics and the Anthropocene mean!

What is the question that drives your latest book? What is its aim?

The latest book is an attempt to scratch some of these intellectual itches about race and climate change. It does this by coming to terms with the ubiquitous, extremely enigmatic, and protean figure of the climate migrant/refugee. But the driving question animating the book is less ‘what is the figure of the climate migrant/refugee’ and more ‘what does the figure mean’. And for me, most straightforwardly, it means race.

What do you argue in your book? Why is it important now?

The book argues that concerns about the figure of the climate migrant/refugee are today less about ‘saving the vulnerable other of climate change’ or ‘defending borders from the onslaught of climate refugees’ and much more to do with resuscitating western humanism at the very moment in our planetary history when climate change threatens to extinguish the human altogether. In this sense, the figure of the climate migrant/refugee is symptomatic of a wider crisis of humanism. The figure is a unique form of racial other invented by western humanism, onto which we can project all our troubled fantasies and worries about the future.

My contention is that at a moment when climate change feels pretty overwhelming, the figure serves the purpose of resolving the existential crisis of climate change. By constructing vast numbers of the global population, mostly poor Black and brown people, as ‘climate migrants’ or ‘climate refugees’ (the terminology is quite problematic), western humanism recasts itself (as so often it does) as the agent of world history in this time of deep and profound crisis.

Readers will judge whether the book is important. But I think it is because it tells a discomfiting story about climate change that not everyone will want to hear. At a time when it’s ‘all hands on deck’ to mitigate the climate crisis, the book comes along and says ‘yes, but…’.  It’s a story, I think, we can scarcely afford to ignore.

Finally, who do you think is the audience for you book?

By far the greatest challenge I faced in writing the book was the vexing question of audience. It took me a long time to realise that the book’s main audience is those who we might loosely call Generation Z, especially in Europe and North America. This is the generation vocalising its concerns about climate change most emphatically, the Fridays for Future crowd. This is an extremely switched on generation with an unparalleled degree of political consciousness on questions about climate change, but also race, gender and sex. But I worry that in its enthusiasm to articulate a progressive climate change politics, it loses site of its own locational imperative, its own implication in ‘whiteness’. And so, I wrote the book in the hope that this readership might engage more reflexivity about the way whiteness (again, as a structure of power, not an identity or skin tone) is an organising feature of contemporary climate change politics. For me, the figure of the climate migrant/refugee is the methodological entry point for fostering this reflexivity.

Bio – Andrew Baldwin is an associate professor of human geography at Durham University. His books include The Other of Climate Change: Racial Futurism, Migration, Humanism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2022), Life Adrift: Climate Change, Migration, Critique (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017; w/ G. Bettini), Climate Change, Migration and Human Rights: Law and Policy Perspectives (Routledge, 2017; with D. Manou et al.), and Rethinking the Great White North: Race, Nature and the Historical Geographies of Whiteness in Canada (UBC Press, 2011; with L. Cameron and A. Kobayashi).

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