The connections between climate change and race are not something that’s well understood, and some people are cynical about the whole idea. “Did you know that climate change was racist?” wrote Rod Liddle in The Sun. “I suppose it had to be, didn’t it? I mean everything else is racist.”
Liddle seems to assume that people want climate change and race to be connected, as if that would be a right on and woke thing to believe, whether or not it’s true. But while the connections are not yet general knowledge, lots of people have highlighted them and I thought I’d share some quotes.
For a start, race campaigners have made the connection, such as Alexandra Wanjiku Kelbert of Black Lives Matter UK, who says bluntly that “climate change is a racist crisis.” Dr Ted Landsmark, a professor of Public Policy, notes that this is a widely held view among young people. “Among youths of colour, the climate crisis is now viewed as an existential threat that is directly linked to economic and racial justice.”
Older civil rights voices agree. Rev Gerald Durley marched with Martin Luther King and acknowledges that “I never could have conceived of becoming a champion for climate change… But, I have had a change of heart. Climate change is a civil rights issue.”
Working in the other direction, climate campaigners are recognising that there is a racial dynamic to climate change. Al Gore for instance, former US vice president and champion of climate action, is clear that “the need for climate action is bound together with the struggle for racial equality and liberation.”
There’s a joining together here, as Jennie Stephens highlights in her book Diversifying Power. “A shift is occurring as social justice activists are leveraging the climate emergency to address social justice and climate activists are leveraging Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and other social justice movements to motivate climate action.”
This is a challenge to the environmental movement, which might be more comfortable keeping racism out of it. “These things, to me, are connected” says the activist Elizabeth Yeampierre. “It’s comfortable for people to separate them, because remember that the environmental movement, the conservation movement, a lot of those institutions were built by people who cared about conservation, who cared about wildlife, who cared about trees and open space and wanted those privileges while also living in the city, but didn’t care about black people. There is a long history of racism in those movements.”
The roots of environmentalism are in nature and wildlife, and the environmental justice aspects are often sidelined. The justice campaigner Asad Rehman talks about the problematic narratives within environmentalism, and how they can accidentally obscure questions of justice: “One is the idea of global catastrophe, that all of us are all on the proverbial Titanic and it has hit the climate iceberg. In reality we may all be on the Titanic, but it’s the rich, white industrialised countries who are on the top deck, sipping their cocktails, listening to the orchestra and waiting for some technological fix to save them, whilst in the hold of the Titanic are black, brown, indigenous people, poor brown and black people from the Global South, who are already drowning, and when they try and flee, they find that the escape hatch is bolted.”
This is a challenge to white environmentalists such as myself. “To white people who care about maintaining a habitable planet, I need you to become actively anti-racist” says the marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. “I need you to understand that our racial inequality crisis is intertwined with our climate crisis. If we don’t work on both, we will succeed at neither.”
Bringing these issues together puts a different spin on climate denial or delay. Race scholar Ibram X Kendi points out that “do-nothing climate policy is racist policy, since the predominantly non-White global south is being victimized by climate change more than the Whiter global north, even as the Whiter global north is contributing more to its acceleration.”
On the other hand, if there’s a connection between climate and race, then well constructed policies can tackle both together. Climate journalist Eric Holthaus suggests that through empire and extractivism, “racism brought us the climate crisis, and it will take transformative anti-racism to solve it.”
Crossposted on Planet of Privilege, a collection of my articles on race and climate on Medium.