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No Climate Justice Without Racial Justice

October 2020 by Helen Filby

Image credit: Photo by Markus Spiske 

Though Black Lives Matter and Fridays for Future (school strikes for climate) may, on the surface, seem quite different – one being a decentralized political and social movement advocating for racial equality and the other demanding international action on the climate crisis – these movements may be more closely linked than they first appear.

Climate change is an existential threat that has been on our collective radar for decades – but are we really aware of its practical consequences? Many of us reading this will live in areas that, for now, are mostly shielded from the deadly consequences of climate change – too often we do not consider those who already living with its effects. In this respect, those who are hit the hardest include minority and indigenous communities all around the globe, the communities least responsible for the situation and challenges they are facing.

Although within Carbon Literacy training we think it important to move away from who is ‘to blame’ for climate change, as this unhelpful rhetoric often leads to excuses and ultimately inaction, it is still important to highlight and understand historical emissions in order to consider equity and fairness in climate action – something that was taken into consideration with the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement through Nationally Determined Contributions. These Nationally Determined Contributions essentially asked for different efforts by each country to reduce national emissions and to adapt to the impacts of climate change, after considering multiple factors around historical emission contributions and the disproportionate financial development that some countries have benefited from through the industrial revolution.

It has been estimated that, due to the historical concentration of industry and wealth in developed countries, they are responsible for 79% of global emissions between 1850 – 2011. Therefore, it makes sense for these same nations (the United States, Russia, and countries within the European Union & Eurasia) not only to lead global climate action but to do more than those who have not seen the same financial gain from creating that climate change. It also stands to reason that those who have more (financially), tend to consume more (resources), and indeed, based on consumption emissions, are arguably those populations which need to adapt their lifestyles most drastically to meet our low and zero-carbon ambitions.

Some would also argue that The Paris Agreement did not go nearly far enough in terms of pursuit for global equity, as the official wording states its –

central aim is to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius.’

However, some communities, such as Kiribati (a low-lying Pacific island state) protested the decision to not commit to a 1.5 degrees Celsius limit on warming, knowing that anything over would have catastrophic consequences for themselves and other marginalised communities. For Kiribati, rising sea levels pose an existential threat to a wealth of cultural and spiritual traditions tied to ancestral lands. Their island home is likely to become uninhabitable in the foreseeable future, and the Kiribati government is planning resettlement of much of its population. However, even if these countries manage to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe in the coming decades, they face a loss of their unique heritage alongside other traumas that come with forced displacement.

Another report explains that even as parts of some developed nations begin to face the consequences of a changing climate, it is Black communities that are disproportionately bearing climate impacts, from storms to heatwaves to pollution. This was particularly evident when hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, significantly impacting African Americans and other minorities, leaving families homeless and without permanent accommodation for a number of years. This further perpetuates inequality through increased instability by increasing reliance on rentals. Similar outcomes were seen in the wake of disasters such as Hurricane Sandy in coastal New Jersey in 2012, and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017.

Quoting the Rt Hon David Lammy, MP for Tottenham – “Black Americans are exposed to 56% more pollution than they cause, white Americans breathe 17% less air pollution than they produce. It gives a whole new meaning to the Black Lives Matter slogan ‘I can’t breathe’”. In his recent TED Talk, he goes on to explain that this is no coincidence. “The cheapest housing tends to be next to the busiest roads, and many of the lowest-paid jobs are in the most polluting industries. People of colour consistently lie at the bottom of the housing, educational and employment ladders. This story connects Black communities across the world, from London, to Lagos, to LA”.

Although the climate crisis will leave no country or community unaffected, its social impacts deepen the inequalities that we see throughout the world in terms of the most marginalised, with not enough being done to address these impacts. The inequalities of society couldn’t be more clearly evidenced than by the fact that Black and minority ethnic communities including indigenous peoples – those who are least responsible for climate change and its impacts – are already feeling the consequences before many other communities. This trend is expected to continue and increase in the future – with those predicted to experience the greatest impacts, including lower-income and other marginalized communities, who are simultaneously most vulnerable due to having a lower capacity to prepare for and cope with extreme weather and climate-related events – unless we start to consider the intersectionality of environmentalism and act to redress this balance. Prioritizing adaptation actions for the most vulnerable populations, funded by developed nations, would contribute to a more equitable future within and across communities. But this does not go far enough. What we need now is a drastic shift to zero-carbon by the developed nations and communities historically responsible for climate change, to substantially reduce climate-related risks and increase opportunities for the most at-risk populations.

As David Lammy put very succinctly –

Racial injustice and climate injustice are both rooted in the evil notion that some lives are more important than others.”

To mitigate the worst impacts of climate change, our actions, now more than ever, must specifically include and protect everyone – but especially those voices who are heard less often. Creating specific laws against the wilful destruction of the planet and strengthening agreements to take more drastic action will be part of the process. We must also highlight and amplify the voices of Black and minority ethnic individuals working and advocating for the protection of their communities as a matter of urgency, to ensure no community is ignored or left behind, or even ignorantly sacrificed due to our unwillingness to act with the urgency that the climate crisis necessitates.

There will be no climate justice without racial justice, and it’s time we all started to acknowledge this to address the climate challenge.


Further Resources:

David Lammy – Climate justice can’t happen without racial justice (TED Talk)

Black Environment Network

Climate Reframe

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