This past year has put a spotlight on the climate emergency and racial injustice. Concern for the state of the environment has never been greater. Thanks to Black Lives Matter and related justice movements, voices that have been tragically sidelined for too long are finally breaking through. But still, some of the most fervent activists treat these as separate struggles.
Like cigarettes and lung cancer, or binge drinking and a hangover, racial injustice and the legacy of colonialism are in fact inextricably linked with climate change. The richest countries in the world today are not those endowed with the most valuable natural resources, but those that ruthlessly plundered the resources of others.
In the U.S. alone the median white family has 41 times more wealth than the median Black family. The legacy of racial segregation looms large. People of color, often in the lowest-paid jobs, are forced into the cheapest housing, which tends to be next to the busiest streets, in communities closer to polluting industries and hazardous waste sites.
Be it London, Flint, Chennai or Naucalpan De Juárez, environmental racism has long blighted Indigenous people and people of color. Too often, it is Black and brown communities who have contributed least to the climate breakdown and yet end up suffering most. In attempts to respond to the crisis, Black and brown communities rarely get a seat at the decision-making table.
For either the climate action or racial justice movement to fully succeed, they must be treated as inextricably linked.
First, COVID-19 stimulus packages are an opportunity to not just “build back better,” but to build back Blacker, fairer, and greener. People of color are more likely to die, lose their jobs or their businesses as a result of the pandemic. As the world recovers, we must support minority-owned sustainable businesses, put green jobs and reskilling at the heart of the recovery, and empower and invest in communities left behind.
President Biden recently signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which, among other anti-racist provisions, includes around $5 billion for Black farmers who have systematically been denied access to credit and support for loan applications. As Biden now turns to a comprehensive infrastructure plan, how he follows through on his campaign pledge to create a sustainable and equitable U.S. economy and implement his Justice40 initiative will be the measures of his success. These efforts should also serve as inspiration for other world leaders.
Second, this year’s U.N. climate summit, COP26 in Glasgow, U.K., is another opportunity to demand solutions to the climate emergency that center racial and social injustice. We need international climate action that acknowledges this urgent truth: climate justice is racial justice.
That means rich countries must set ambitious 2030 national climate targets. Achieving the Paris Agreement’s goal to keep global average temperatures from increasing more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels could save species, livelihoods and lives. The new and bold U.S. target to reduce emissions by at least 50% by 2030 (compared to 2005 levels) just injected some much-needed energy into climate action. But the world is not on track.
Developed countries must also boost financial support for the developing world, where billions of people in formerly-colonized countries bear the disproportionate impacts from climate-related disasters. While rich countries were able to mobilize $15 trillion in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, they have not yet met their collective pledge to provide $100 billion in climate finance per year by 2020.
Not only should this financial commitment be fulfilled, a more ambitious target must be set beyond 2025. Leaders must also address the crippling debt many climate vulnerable countries face. These steps are of both moral and pragmatic urgency. Aid and debt relief that reduce global emissions and improve resilience will lead to a more stable and prosperous planet for all.
Since COP26 should be both ambitious and realistic, countries must also deliver an appropriate and collective response to tackle what is called “loss and damage”—the now unavoidable economic and non-economic impacts on countries’ environment and infrastructure from climate change. For years, this issue has been diminished by rich countries exercising power over the terms of climate negotiations, at the expense of countries from the Global South. No more.
Third, the racial justice and climate communities must come together. For too long, leaders of the U.S. and U.K. climate movements, who are mostly white, have not paid nearly enough attention to the climate impacts being felt by Black and brown people. Not only is this wrong, it is wrongheaded. As former NAACP President Ben Jealous has said, there is no green vote without the Black and brown vote.
To achieve this vision, we need to actively support people of color having greater visibility and empowerment. We need more people of color in our cabinets, boardrooms, multilateral institutions, and on screens talking about environmental racism and leading change. We need scholarships and bursaries that open the fields of environmental and climate science to more young people of color. And, we need to use our positions of influence to defeat egregious and persistent efforts to suppress the Black and brown vote.
The good news is some are already leading the way, such as Uganda’s Vanessa Nakate, Leah Thomas’ Intersectional Environmentalist, Green for All, and The Solutions Project. All governments, businesses, NGOs and civil society should do their part as well.
We cannot remain color-blind in our response to the climate crisis. Doing so while simply hoping for better outcomes means enabling the same system that got us into this mess. Climate change may be colonialism’s natural conclusion, but acknowledging this reality is the first step towards meaningful action on racial equity and climate change.