Updated: Jun 22, 2020
Friends it's been a rough few weeks. We have seen pain and brutality, ignorance and honesty, solidarity and (un)learning. The ripple effects of the brutal murder of George Floyd are far reaching.
As the events of recent weeks exploded around us my worlds converged. I've always been someone who has wanted to fight for justice. And this has reminded me that the very reason I entered the world of environmentalists and climate change was because I understood that climate change was fundamentally unjust and unequal - I knew that those hit hardest would be the poor and vulnerable, those with the least resources to fight it, those who had done the least to cause it.
Over the last two weeks I've seen the intersectionality of climate change and racism in a new way. In this blog I wanted to share some of my thoughts, and those of others (much more educated and eloquent than I), with you.
Intersectionality: racism and climate change
I've written before about the fact that climate change will hit the poorest hardest (read more here). But there's something I didn't explicitly say in that blog: those who will be hit hardest are mostly people of colour.
Let me break that down.
In the US people of colour, particularly Black people, bear the weight of environmental degradation more heavily. Leah Thomas, in Vogue, writes that a 2018 study looking at air quality found that “'non-whites had 1.28 times higher burden' and that Black residents 'had 1.54 higher burden than did the overall population' of exposure to particulate matter. (Particulate matter is a combination of solid and liquid particles in the air; when these small particles are inhaled they can infiltrate your lungs and bloodstream and cause serious illness.)"
Another example of the racial inequality of climate change is the damage done by hurricane Katrina. Those neighbourhoods hit hardest by the hurricane were predominantly Black neighbourhoods, "yet the relief was far slower and inadequate compared with that provided in predominantly white and higher-income neighbourhoods, despite those being less impacted” (Leah Thomas, Vogue).
Amazon has been accused of environmental racism, because they continue to pollute communities of colour causing a rise in asthma and other illnesses. The Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ) has accused Amazon, saying, “You're coming into these communities of colour and polluting the environment.”
The story isn't much different in the UK where "Black British Africans are 28% more likely than their white counterparts to be exposed to air pollution" (The Guardian).
And if COVID-19 has taught us anything it's that racial inequality is rife within the UK. The Guardian, reporting on the inequalities exposed by the virus, said, "In employment terms, ethnic minorities in Britain are already more likely to work in insecure, low-paid work, and more likely to be unemployed. In housing, they represent more than half of all overcrowded households, are less likely to own their home, and have up to 11 times less green space to access." And do not think that climate change will be any different - crises tend to expose systemic inequalities.
But this is not just an issue in the West. This is a global issue. When Black Lives Matter UK, in 2019, shut down London City Airport they argued that the climate crisis was a racist crisis, saying, "seven of the 10 countries most vulnerable to climate change are in sub-Saharan Africa."
Excuse the language but that's perfect.
Institutionalised racism on a global scale
Racism is systemic and institutionalised - it’s not just an issue within our society in the UK or in the US, it’s a globalised system that originates in colonialism and slavery. Racism, value extraction, and white privilege were all institutionalised for the benefit of the few (white and Western) and at the expense of the many (non-white, global South).
I read an excellent article recently, which said that “Climate change is a symptom of the same unequal system. It is the denial of the right to exist on an enormous, planetary scale. It is a consequence of the same system run by people who think of Africa as a resource for imperialist expansion, not a continent filled with millions of families who deserve health and safety and happiness just like everyone does. It’s what happens when the lives of marginalised people and non-human species are viewed as expendable. That expendability, and the continuation of this system, is a choice. Nothing about it is inevitable or necessary, yet those in power choose to continue it every single day.”
You know African countries are stepping up and fighting climate change? They don't have the resources we do but for them this is a matter of life and death, so they act.
And when predominantly white, Western, industrialised nations don't act quickly and justly on climate change that is globalised racism. When those in power, who are mostly white, don't acknowledge or prioritise climate action that is institutionalised racism. When ordinary white people, like me, like some of you reading this, don't see that ignoring climate change is a luxury that most Black and Brown people don't have, that's racist.
I don't say that lightly. But if we cannot see that our privilege has been built on colonialism and slavery, and that it has been sustained by the institutionalisation and globalisation of racial inequality, then we cannot truly say that Black Lives Matter.
We should demand justice for George Floyd. For Breonna Taylor. For Ahmaud Arbery. For Trayvon Martin.
But also for Constance Okollet (a farmer from Uganda, who tells her story of fighting climate change at the Cape Town hearing , shared in the book Climate Justice by Mary Robinson). For Dominic Misolo and those in his community (I interviewed him in this blog). And for the countless others living in Africa and Asia who are unknown and unnamed but no less important.
Climate , race and me
We live in a time where it is almost stylish to fight for climate change. But do we really see the overlap with racial injustice? If you don't see it, what will it take for you to wake up? What will it take for us to see that dismantling white privilege goes further than we imagine. That it requires a dismantling of the global system as it stands so that people of colour do not bear the brunt of our luxury. If you don't see this connection yet, I urge you to do the work. I've shared some resources below that have helped me.
For those who do see the connection, what next? Maybe you can use your platform, and your relationships to fight for those who are most vulnerable to climate change.
A few resources to get you started
Climate Justice by Mary Robinson - this book is easy to read. She writes about the intersectionality of climate change and justice, but also includes the stories of those on the front line.
Why Every Environmentalist Should Be Anti-Racist - article by Leah Thomas in Vogue
I’m a black climate expert. Racism derails our efforts to save the planet. - article by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson in the Washington Post
Instagram accounts: @greengirlleah, @ayanaeliza, @aditimayer, @mikaelaloach
This is obviously not an extensive list, and if you've got any great resources to share please do so!
To end, I know this is not my normal blog post but this is something I feel strongly about and I couldn't remain silent. I hope that you see my heart in this, and that if reading this post has made you uncomfortable that you think about why that might be. We've all got room to grow, and that is what this journey is all about.