Collective Action

Climate Justice is Racial Justice

Six voices on the BIPOC fight against climate change

Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP (2019 via CityLab)

Climate Justice is Racial Justice

Six scientists and scholars on the intersections of systemic racism, the fight for racial justice, climate change, and the fight for climate justice.

Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson

Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a marine biologist, CEO of the social justice-focused consultancy Ocean Collectiv, and founder of Urban Ocean Lab, a think tank for the future of coastal cities. Watch her TED Talk on the coral reef crisis here.

In a Perspective piece for The Washington Post, she wrote:

Toni Morrison said it best, in a 1975 speech: “The very serious function of racism … is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” As a marine biologist and policy nerd, building community around climate solutions is my life’s work. But I’m also a black person in the United States of America. I work on one existential crisis, but these days I can’t concentrate because of another.

The sheer magnitude of transforming our energy, transportation, buildings and food systems within a decade, while striving to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions shortly thereafter, is already overwhelming. And black Americans are disproportionately more likely than whites to be concerned about — and affected by — the climate crisis. But the many manifestations of structural racism, mass incarceration and state violence mean environmental issues are only a few lines on a long tally of threats. How can we expect black Americans to focus on climate when we are so at risk on our streets, in our communities, and even within our own homes? How can people of color effectively lead their communities on climate solutions when faced with pervasive and life-shortening racism?

Even at its most benign, racism is incredibly time consuming. Black people don’t want to be protesting for our basic rights to live and breathe. We don’t want to constantly justify our existence. Racism, injustice and police brutality are awful on their own, but are additionally pernicious because of the brain power and creative hours they steal from us. I think of one black friend of mine who wanted to be an astronomer, but gave up that dream because organizing for social justice was more pressing. Consider the discoveries not made, the books not written, the ecosystems not protected, the art not created, the gardens not tended.

Shahir Masri

Shahir Masri is an environmental pollution scientist at the University of California at Irvine. He is also author of the book, Beyond Debate: Answers to 50 Misconceptions on Climate Change.

In an op-ed for The Hill, he wrote:

If there was any question as to the causative nature of such racial patterning, the so-called Cerrell Report laid them to rest. Commissioned in 1984 by the California Waste Management Board, an LA-based consulting firm published an analysis that unambiguously identified the types of communities that would pose the least resistance to the siting of waste incinerator facilities. Rural, low-income communities with a high school education or less, were deemed “least likely to resist,”. In contrast, college-educated, professional communities in mid-to-upper income areas were labeled “most likely to resist.” While the report didn’t mention race, it took only a shred of added insight to know that the poverty rate among African-Americans was over three times that of whites, with a college graduation rate of about half that of whites. The story was similar to other minority groups. Sadly, little has changed today.

Dany Sigwalt

Dany Sigwalt is co-executive director of the Power Shift Network, where she works to bring together movement building and youth leadership development. PSN aims to mobilize young people to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

In a piece for Medium, she wrote:

The way that we win on mitigating climate change is to enforce government accountability to its citizens and right now, that means fighting for justice for George Floyd. If you care about people, humanity, and justice, now is the time to show up for Black Lives and build Black political power. There are ways you can and should be doing this work: Show up in solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives, centering the cause of Black liberation, and lift up insightful Black leadership in climate work.

You can donate money to protest defense funds, individual organizers out in the streets directly doing the work, and to Black-led organizations invested in building power for the long haul.

To show up for Black folks in the Climate Movement, it means consciously choosing your movement homes. It means looking at who is in the room, asking why Black folks aren’t there. Choosing carefully means paying attention to who’s been around the longest and who has the power. If that power doesn’t look like the movement you’re trying to be a part of, choosing carefully means leaving and finding the work that Black folks, Indigenous Folks, and folks of color are leading, and plugging into that.

Nina Lakhani

Nina Lakhani is The Guardian US’s environmental justice reporter. She also wrote a new book called Who Killed Berta Cáceres?, about a woman murdered after leading a campaign to stop construction of an environmentally destructive hydroelectric dam in Honduras.

In an interview with Bill McKibben for The New Yorker, Nina said:

Indigenous people across the world mobilize against damaging environmental activities to protect their sacred lands, water, and traditional way of life, and they are involved in forty-one per cent of documented environmental conflicts, according to a new study analyzing nearly three thousand community movements. Across the board, environmental defenders face high rates of criminalization, physical violence, and assassination, but the risk is significantly higher when indigenous people are involved. In my experience reporting from across Mexico and Central America, environmentally destructive projects — such as mining, dams, logging, and tourism resorts — are imposed on indigenous communities without any consultation or compensation, and when they resist investors and politicians try to discredit them as anti-development and anti-green energy. This simply isn’t true. Imposing these environmentally destructive projects, including clean-energy projects, will destroy indigenous communities who could teach us so much about sustainability.

Brentin Mock

Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab and former justice editor at Grist. His reporting has focused on voting rights, civil rights, environmental justice, green workforce development, and more.

In 2017, he wrote about the racist history of the environmentalist movement for Outside magazine:

Perhaps reparations in the environmental movement means mainstream organizations become completely restructured with racial justice prioritized right alongside issues like climate change and deforestation — a format that would be utterly unrecognizable to today’s traditional green leaders. As it stands, there are few sectors that don’t have to regularly account for how their work is impacting black lives. Nonprofits dealing with housing, schooling, public health, the business sector, even sports — all of these have to answer for how policy risks and benefits are distributed among African Americans and people of color.

Environmental nonprofits, meanwhile, historically have not had to account for the systemic imbalances that discrimination brings — like the fact that polluting facilities are more often located in communities of color or, on the other side of the spectrum, the fact that “greening” spaces can also have a lot of the same effects of gentrification, displacing the communities that live nearby.

The problem starts with the leadership makeup of environmental organizations themselves. Within 25 years, people of color are expected to become the majority in America. Meanwhile, stats from the Green 2.0 initiative show that only 12 percent of the leadership staff and less than 5 percent of NGO boards of directors are people of color. When it comes to general staffing for these organizations, less than 13 percent of those hired between 2010 and 2014 were people of color.

Rhiana Gunn-Wright

Rhiana Gunn-Wright is the director of climate policy at the Roosevelt Institute. Previously, as the policy director for New Consensus, she was tasked with developing and promoting the Green New Deal.

In an interview for the MIT Technology Review, she discussed the connection between recent protests and the climate crisis, and how climate can play a role in economic recovery:

We’re going to be left with an economy where you have to generate huge numbers of jobs, and where you have to offset a really significant drop in demand. And decarbonization is one of the only spaces that can do that. It’s one of the only spaces where we can generate that many jobs, where they’ll also create new industries, and where you have the chance to spark new innovations that essentially help continue to grow the economy even after the initial investment is made.

And so you have all those arguments stacking up for a green stimulus. It by far makes the most economic sense. Really, the only reasons to not do it are political reasons.


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