Why don’t we take climate change seriously? Racism is the answer

By Sulaiman Ilyas-Jarrett, first published in Open Democracy on 1st July 2020

Featured image shows Climate activist Oladosu Adenike organising with schoolchildren in Abuja, Nigeria, 2019, Photo copyright to: Oladosu Adenike

We have known about climate change for decades. As early as 1992 the threat was sufficiently obvious, and the science sufficiently clear, to justify a UN treaty on the topic. Yet we’ve only even begun to get our act together in the last five or so years. Why?

As COVID-19 reminds us, global crises tend to amplify existing inequalities in society. The same is true of climate change. Its impacts have been felt disproportionately by people of colour, both in developing countries and minority communities within wealthy nations.

For many in these communities climate change has devastating effects. It intensifies floods in south Asia, drought in southern Africa, and extreme tropical storms from Mozambique to the Caribbean. And then there’s the pacific islands, literally swallowed by rising seas. But the fact that these have mostly impacted poor people of colour, not wealthy white westerners, has hindered global action.

Race has justified the systematic exploitation of non-white people and their lands, and continues to disadvantage Black and Brown people through both institutional and individual bias. But it is not the only reason that action on climate change has been slow.
Class, wealth, gender and the legacies of empire have all played a role. As have the lobbying of vested interests, an economic ideology that discouraged government intervention, and even psychological factors that make it hard for humans to process a crisis of this scale.

But we rarely talk about the impact of race. The murder of George Floyd, and the wave of protests it has inspired, reminds us how Black and Brown lives are often less valued by those in positions of power. An injustice that stretches far beyond the policing system.

Part of the recent surge in interest in climate across developed countries has been because now we are beginning to feel its effects. Directly, through the unseasonable heat of recent years, and indirectly, through images in the media of bushfires in Australia or devastating storms in the US.

Yet these kinds of climate events have been happening for decades in developing countries. While new calls for climate action are always welcome, perhaps if we genuinely valued Black lives as we value those of white Westerners it wouldn’t have taken so long.

Some will argue it’s natural to respond more strongly when disasters are closer to home. There is certainly some truth to this. Yet even within wealthy countries, official responses to climate events are often weaker when the victims are people of colour. One need only look at Katrina, or more recently Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, where the federal response was quantitatively poorer than for other storms of equal severity. And when storms hit cities with high diversity, such as hurricane Sandy in New York, the impacts are unfairly distributed across race and class.

In the UK, such inequities are less clear, probably because we experience less dramatic climate events. However, if the unequal impacts of other crises are anything to go by, it’s only a matter of time. Recent government figures have highlighted how BAME Brits are disproportionately affected by COVID, and independent studies have shown harmful air pollution is most concentrated in ethnically diverse areas. This brings yet another harrowing meaning to the words “I can’t breathe”.

For now, the UK’s climate inequities are most clear in relation to empire and the Commonwealth. As a British citizen I live in a country that has one of the world’s highest historical CO2 emissions, but has borne almost none of the consequences. Meanwhile, the nations of my grandparents, Jamaica and Pakistan respectively, are suffering from extreme heat waves, floods, and increasingly intense tropical storms. There is a moral obligation on ex-colonial powers to take a stronger lead on problems they’ve helped cause.
Decolonising climate movements

The climate movement itself has a reputation for being predominantly white. In the West, there is some truth to this, though there are also a range of diverse voices doing fantastic work on the subject. One reason for this is that a lot of Black communities have more immediate struggles to focus on. It can be difficult to focus on the thing that might hurt you tomorrow when there’s something else that might hurt you today.

Another reason may be the lack of representation in the movement, which reinforces the idea that this is a ‘white’ issue. Many people have simply never thought of climate in relation to race, though this is rapidly changing, and many young activists of colour now consider climate a vital issue.

But it is important to remember that, globally, people of colour have been on the forefront of climate action for decades. At the UN, the strongest calls for climate action have come from Indigenous people and the Least Developed Countries Group, composed mostly of Sub-Saharan African countries and small island states. For them, it is literally a matter of survival. Again, perhaps if Black and Brown voices were given the respect they deserve, global action would be more forthcoming.

Climate change is about more than race, especially as it’s no longer just predominantly white countries that are major emitters. Yet conversations on race, and the systematic undervaluing of Black and Brown lives, go some way to explaining global inaction to date.
We need to do more. And to spur the action we require on climate, we must first accept the equal humanity of those that suffer the most. If we did that, inaction would feel impossible.

Sulaiman Ilyas-Jarrett works in climate policy and was an Isaac Newton Scholar in Environmental Policy at Cambridge University