Why Addressing Racial Injustice is Imperative in the Climate Change and Sustainability Movements

Why Addressing Racial Injustice is Imperative in the Climate Change and Sustainability Movements

The climate crisis is one of the biggest challenges facing humanity in modern times. Some people find this hard to believe though because in day-to-day life, the climate concern does not translate into an immediate worry. Put differently, when you consider that so far, no city has been swallowed by water or any of the other elements and that the closest estimates are still decades away, you can see why some consider the climate action a tad frivolous. Well, the reason I consider the climate issue a crisis is because it has been shown to be the underlying factor for a lot of other challenges we currently grapple with.

The connection between climate change, other environmental and social issues has been extensively studied and discussed. These issues are inter-connected in such a manner that when we work below par in any one area, we could topple all our hard work in the other areas too. Present-day challenges such as immigration and violent clashes between farmers and herdsmen are not isolated events in this regard. Just like the issue of racism, these issues are all closely linked with climate change. I’ll explain this with a personal example.

I was about nine years old the first time I became aware of an environmental issue on a massive scale. There was a scandal in my community regarding toxic waste at the time and at the root of the issue were Western companies that had arranged to dump their hazardous waste in my part of the world. I am a voracious reader, and so I read everything I could about the issue. I peppered my parents with questions seeking answers, and the more I understood the concerns, the more I believed that we would all die if the waste were dumped.

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Ijora, Lagos, Nigeria. Credit: Dami Akinbode.

I’m older now and I understand that the reasons why my community leaders were so upset back then had everything to do with racism. ‘Developed countries’ have been generating and dumping all manner of toxic wastes on my home continent for years, for the simple reason that this is Africa and Western corporations knew, given the lack of legal and environmental controls, they could get away with it. After all, we were Africans and our collective colonial history shows that Westerners have gotten away with much worse.

In the United States, Black people and other minorities are disproportionately affected by environmental issues. According to this report, hazardous waste dumpsites are more likely to be sited in areas inhabited by Blacks and other people of color. The other side of this coin, on a global scale is that African countries and other developing countries are projected to bear the brunt of the effects of climate change.

There is certainly a correlation between these two. Especially when you realise that the people and the systems that cause pollution in minority neighborhoods in the US are more or less the same catalysts for the global climate crisis.

So, why exactly is achieving racial justice imperative in the environmental movement?

Well it is important because – and we often forget this – we are fighting for the wellbeing of the planet for the sake of all humanity; today and in the days to come. All of humanity, not just elites, not just Westerners, all of us. When you look at it this way, things take clearer forms. You can’t be fighting for a better planet for all humans and simultaneously stand by while some people are harmed by others because it makes no sense. To achieve a state where the care for the environment is paramount, we must start off by accomplishing a society where there is equal care for all human life.

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The core of the environmental justice movement is for world governments to do right by their citizens irrespective of race, class or creed and this dovetails with the goals of the racial justice movement as well. Racial equality is a shortcut for environmental justice because it’s difficult to care for green living when confronted with the possibility that you could be killed on the streets on account of your race. If this is your reality, concerns for most other things will pale in comparison to concern for your life. If we are to achieve climate justice, then we give one another a fighting chance at life and that is what racial justice is about.

June 2, 2020: George Floyd protests in Charlotte, North Carolina, USA. Credit: Photo by Clay Banks.

If there ever was a time for a synergy between the the environmental and racial justice movements, that time is now. The work of the racial justice activists and the protests have created a unique opportunity for a wholesale evaluation of the entire system. Over the past few weeks, climate activists have rallied alongside their race counterparts. In a show of solidarity, thousands of climate scientists and researchers went on a strike and called for actions to protect Black people. I cannot commend this enough especially for a field that has remained very white despite the inclusive goals it purports to have.

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“I can’t breathe” were some of the last words of George Floyd and it has been taken up as the rallying cry for the police brutality protests. It has also been taken up by environmental and climate activists as well. Last week in a presentation to the US Congress, Mustafa Santiago Ali, the Vice President for environmental justice at the National Wildlife Federation, shared that “…when we say, ‘I can’t breathe’, we literally can’t breathe”. He said this in relation to the burden of Black people and other minority communities who bear the brunt of air pollution and other environmental hazards in the country because those three words sum it up best.

Those powerful words illustrate more than anything the connection between environmental and racial justice. When we get out of our echo chambers and look beyond our cause, we need to realize that we all should be fighting for the survival of all humanity. And this means giving everyone the chance to breathe; whether by fighting for a better climate or dismantling the prejudiced system that has its knees on all our collective necks.

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Cover image of the Rhino Refugee Camp, Arua, Uganda by Ninno Jack Jr.

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