A hand holding a sign that reads, Climate Justice Now!" in all caps. The "I" in "climate" is in the shape of a thermometer and the "o" in "now" is an image of the earth.
Image Source: Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Countering the Racist Roots of Evironmentalism with Climate Justice

Though climate change comes up frequently in the news, election campaigns, and political debates, we rarely hear about climate justice. Climate justice centers marginalized communities and those affected by racial and socioeconomic inequities while pushing for larger-scale change than most policies currently address (NAACP). The terms climate justice and environmental justice are sometimes used interchangeably, while other times, climate justice is used to specifically refer to the effects of climate change. 

I represent the third-poorest congressional district in the country, and folks in my district can tell you that we have been in a crisis mode far before Covid-19 showed up. Folks in my district can also tell you that the climate crisis we are experiencing is one that they have been fighting to address for decades.”

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, US House District 13 (Facebook via Central Florida Climate Action).

TAKE ACTION

• Support PODER, the Environmental Transformation Movement of Flint, and the Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy.

• Read about Just Transition, the transformative framework for change promoted by many climate justice organizations.

• Hold your local environmental organizations accountable. Who is on the board? What communities do they center? Who do they exclude?

Climate justice developed partially in opposition to mainstream environmental activism (like the conservation and preservation movements) that did not look at intersections of race and class. Instead, those groups were (and usually still are) white-led and white-run, and viewed the environment through a narrow lens (Environment and Society). Such environmentalism is directly descended from the colonialism and white supremacist ideals of Teddy Roosevelt-era conservationists. As environmental law scholar Jedidiah Purdy writes in a history of conservation’s racism, “For these conservationists, who prized the expert governance of resources, it was an unsettlingly short step from managing forests to managing the human gene pool” (New Yorker). 

Even in 2014, a study of 293 leading environmental organizations, foundations, and government agencies found that ethnic/racial minorities occupied less than 12% of leadership positions and very rarely in the highest roles (Diversity in Environmental Organizations). It also found that “few of the organizations studied collaborate with ethnic minority or low-income institutions or groups.” As an example: usually, the people included in disaster relief planning (on the local to global level) are not from the communities who will actually receive the disaster relief; affected people in disadvantaged communities often do not have a voice at the table (Minority Rights Group International). 

The study’s author, Dorceta Taylor, also conducted research on white and BIPOC students studying environmental courses and discovered that the two groups had virtually identical GPAs and course loads, even though the people getting hired by environmental groups are predominantly white males (Yale Environmental 360). 

Recently— and largely as a response to Black Lives Matter—green groups have begun to examine their complicity in racism (National Geographic). They have made public commitments to diversify and renounced some of their founders, like John Muir. Yet it’s too soon to know how much of this is performative and how much will result in lasting change. Can one or two token minorities on a board truly make a difference when the rot goes so deep? 

On the other hand, climate justice is rooted in anti-racism and centering the communities ignored by mainstream environmentalism. “Advocacy and scholarship about protecting communities of color are rarely called environmentalism because those communities are still largely not considered places worthy of protection by environmentalists,” explains Danielle Purifoy, one of the only Black Ph.D. students in her environmental studies program (Inside Higher Ed). 

Importantly, climate justice is a grassroots movement. Climate Justice Alliance, for example, comprises frontline organizations. Engagement centered in the communities— not top-down policies created by disengaged congressmen—is necessary. But for BIPOC activists, it can also be dangerous. Jayce Chiblow, a leader at the Canadian organization Indigenous Climate Actions, noted that while ‘Youth are leading us and taking on frontline activity,” many of them experienced violence and were arrested and removed as a result of their activism (Resilience.org). Read some profiles of Indigenous activists here

What was most eye-opening for me was realizing how entangled economic, environmental, social, and racial issues are. Climate justice encompasses many other justice issues that we often think of as separate from environmental concerns, like workers’ rights and Indigenous sovereignty. Currently, our government tries attacking each problem piecemeal, ignoring the holistic view. On the other hand, the Just Transition plan from the Climate Justice Alliance implements a different framework for change than Biden’s deal or even the Green New Deal:

We must build [a] visionary economy that is very different… This requires stopping the bad while at the same time as building the new. We must change the rules to redistribute resources and power to local communities…  Shifting from dirty energy to energy democracy… from gentrification to community land rights… and from rampant destructive development to ecosystem restoration. Core to a just transition is deep democracy in which workers and communities have control over the decisions that affect their daily lives.”

Just Transition framework from Climate Justice Alliance

Climate justice—and this framework in particular—presents a different, more expansive vision that is so holistic and far-reaching that it can seem impossible at first glance. Implement a regenerative economy here? How? But I suggest reading through the plan slowly, a little bit each day. It is a framework that can, like “Abolish the police,” guide our goals and shape what we should ultimately be working towards transformative, structural change.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

• The mainstream conservation and environmental movements descend from colonialism and white supremacy.

• Climate justice is a grassroots movement that centers BIPOC and those most affected by climate change, communities historically ignored by environmentalism.

• Climate justice promotes transformative, far-reaching change— a shift from our current extractive economy to a regenerative economy.

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