An investigation into the relationship between race and the climate crisis, and why it isn’t equal for all of us – beginning with an opinion piece by writer and campaigner Minnie Rahman.
Because the terms of the debate can be complex and nuanced, we’ve put together a glossary at the end of the piece.
And we’ll be continuing this conversation by inviting artists and creatives to respond to the topic – you can declare your interest here.
An unequal crisis
Who we are, how much we earn, our ethnicity, our gender, our ability to turn on the air conditioning in a heatwave, to access clean drinking water from a tap, to travel to safer ground, and much more, all affects our ability to weather the storm that is brewing.
The picture isn’t pretty. People of colour in the Global South have long been experiencing the impacts of the climate crisis, including being pushed out of their land by corporations, eroding coastlines, severe flooding, drought, deforestation and unsustainable levels of toxic waste. The changes are often so severe that it means that huge areas are becoming inhabitable or that life has to significantly adapt in order to be able to survive. The richest 1% of the world’s population cause twice as much carbon dioxide as the poorest 50%. That same poorest 50% – 3.5 billion people – live overwhelmingly in countries most vulnerable to climate change, meaning that they are bearing the brunt of a crisis they did not cause.
A recent IPCC report found that, as temperatures rise, those in naturally warmer climates in developing countries who already rely on climate sensitive livelihoods will struggle to provide food for their communities and exports to support their economies.
“Without concrete action, the climate crisis could push more than 100 million people in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa into poverty over the next 10 years. By 2050 it could force 143 million people to move within their own countries to escape its slow-onset impacts.”
Without concrete action, the climate crisis could push more than 100 million people in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa into poverty over the next 10 years. By 2050 it could force 143 million people to move within their own countries to escape its slow-onset impacts.
In the Global North too, communities of colour and working class communities are often the ones that feel the heaviest brunt of the climate crisis. In the UK, people of colour and their families are more likely to live in poverty and recent figures also reveal an overrepresentation of people of colour in homelessness. Black communities in London are disproportionately more likely to breathe illegal levels of air pollution and there are clear examples of where communities of colour are already fighting against corporations for the right to clean air.
Fine, disasters do not discriminate but – as people, we do. The climate crisis is racist because it exists in a system that is racist.
As with any crisis – whether that’s the COVID-19 pandemic, flooding or fires – it is much harder to keep yourself safe and protected if you are already at a disadvantage. All of this means that across the world, white people are more protected, secure and safe from the life-threatening impacts of a changing environment.
Colonialism + capitalism = crisis
It is important to understand how and why that system came to exist if we are to find permanent solutions to the crisis which work for frontline communities. Those solutions are in our history. To move forwards we have to look backwards.
The very existence of climate change can be traced back to colonialism and capitalism. The fundamental changing of the planet might have been an “accidental” consequence of colonialism, but the enslavement and genocide of thousands of people of colour was certainly not.
New territories were seen by wealthy countries as a business venture. Their rainforests, wetlands, grasslands, crops and minerals were decimated by the need for quick and competitive economic growth which could only be sustained by continual state expansion. The enslavement and removal of indigenous people by any necessary means was the only way that resource extraction could continue at the same pace so that colonial nations could thrive.
The strength and power of a nation was determined not only by the size of land owned, but on the idea of state competition – who was the biggest, the best and the richest.
Sound familiar? That’s very much still the state of play today and it has real consequences. For example, it is likely that wealthier nations will be able to pay to escape overheating, hunger and conflict whilst countries in the Global South pay the price. Factor in global debt – also rooted in colonialism, and poorer countries could be prevented from investing in infrastructure which is required to protect their citizens and economies from the effects of climate change.
Time to take action
Alright, that probably feels quite overwhelming (just imagine how people of colour feel every day!) so let’s talk about how we can put things right.
Quite simply, racism isn’t going to help us. If we’re to ensure that we tackle the root causes of the climate crisis, it must involve dismantling the systems which allow the rich to thrive while throwing the most vulnerable – people of colour – under the bus. If we can understand how important ecosystems are, we can understand that nothing occurs in a vacuum.
To people in power, a racist system is a preferable system. It helps maintain the structures which allow climate catastrophes to thrive. They don’t care about people of colour, so you and I have to. There is no solution to the climate crisis that does not involve dismantling this system. What we are asking for is bold but that is why we are in this game. When the stakes are high, the solutions must be too.
It has to be said that we all need to reflect on our own behaviour as a starting point. Learning how to be a good ally is vital to ensuring that history isn’t repeated. It isn’t an easy job to reflect on how we ourselves might be contributing to an unjust system, but reckoning with ourselves is the first step to getting it right. We will only win when we centre the voices and solutions of people of colour. We need to shift our attention to what the people most affected *need* and what would help them get there. They must always be front and centre.
We must never forget what can be learned from others. Pass the mic to new leadership, a leadership who is expert in staring down existential crises. People of colour, indigenous, working class and queer communities have long been fighting a system that is designed to make us feel a sense of loss and which denies us the very hope that we need in order to dismantle it.Trust their experiences and their expertise and vision.
We have to unite different movement and struggles and look to our local communities to see what work is already going on and how you can use your skills (or money) to support them. There are numerous organisations, groups and charities which have prioritised justice for the communities most affected by climate change. Here are just a few:
- Green New Deal UK
- Clean Air for Southall and Hayes
- Ella Roberta Family Foundation
- End Heathrow Immigration Detention
- War on Want
- Labour Behind the Label
- Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants
- Leeds TIDAL
- Bahu Trust
WARNING – this list is not exhaustive! Go out there and do your own research.
And if you’re a person of colour who is interested in climate change activism – whether that’s reconnecting with nature or taking the fight right to Downing St – these are some of the spaces that exist for you:
What climate change activists are good at is imagining a better world. That in and of itself is reason enough for why racism has no part of the future we envision. So let us do all we can to create an anti-racist society in all its forms.
The climate crisis has a diverse set of impacts, which requires a diverse set of solutions. Sometimes that is going to look like installing solar panels or stopping a third runway, and other times it looks like standing up against police brutality or detention estates.
So – donate. Show up. Listen.
Racist system refers to the systems White Supremacy, Colonialism and Capitalism – they’re racist because they give white people structural advantage.
Colonialism is a system where one people seek power over other people – often for economic dominance. Results include colonies, and the loss of indigenous people’s lives, land, language, religion and culture.
Capitalism is a political and economic system where a small number of individuals and companies (and not the government) make most of the decisions. They also own most of the ‘means of production’ (how goods and services are created) and operate for profit.
Global North refers to ‘Western’ societies, predominantly in Europe and North America and mainly defined by technological advancement, political stability and wealth. These advantages have often come at the expense of the Global South.
Global South refers to societies that do not fall into the Global North. Many countries in the Global South are poorer than those in the Global North because of the lasting effects of colonialism and ongoing exploitation.
Communities of Colour is a broad term which relates to communities made up of people of colour. In this article, it’s inclusive of Black communities too. Though it’s important to note that not all communities of colour have the same experiences – which makes it an imperfect and contentious term.
Black Communities refers to communities or neighbourhoods of Black People – Black refers to a race of people and is not always synonymous with the colour of somebody’s skin.
Indigenous people are ethnic groups of people who are native to a particular place.
If you have any thoughts or suggestions on any of this terminology, then please get in touch with us.