In an interview that I recently read, a Michigan University Professor, Dorceta Taylor, who was the first black woman to earn a PhD from the Yale school of Forestry and Environmental Studies, stated that there is a misconception that black people don’t care about climate change or the environmental movement. Taylor noted that this misconception stretches as far as the assumption that people of colour are also unskilled or lack the academic qualifications to take up climate change jobs. Certainly, I have come across this phenomenon myself with interactions with people who find it surprising when they find out I work for a climate change initiative.
Whether we are aware of it or not, we live in a societal melting pot where, on one hand, perceptions such as these exist and are perpetuated by the inequality and exclusion of people of colour from climate change discourse while, on the other hand, hashtags such as #Blacklivesmatter have birthed movements advocating for the dignity, equality, justice and mutual respect for persons of colour. It is becoming harder to ignore instances where microaggressions and othering (that are so often overlooked in society) can perpetuate dangerous (and sometimes deadly) structural racism and racial tensions. Further, is it now more apparent than ever, that our current systems are plagued with racial oppressive discrimination and increased conflicts that sure to be exacerbated as climate change intensifies. Things are getting “hotter and wetter, but also meaner and uglier”, especially for black people.
There is a long history of subtle forms of othering (like the above) and more apparent forms of environmental racism that disfavours black and brown (often also poor) people most. And although the struggle with climate change impacts are apparent to us all, there is a disproportionate exposure to these impacts in developing countries and especially for poor populations in vulnerable communities. By far in South Africa and often globally, it is people of colour who live in these areas that are the worst affected by climate change impacts – a lingering consequence of the Apartheid era’s racially dividing homelands. Despite the end of Apartheid, rural marginalization, one of the era’s lasting remnants, has left people of colour living on the outskirts of cities exposed to a whole host of issues linked to climate change impacts, in a new form of “environmental apartheid.” Often, also, these communities are far removed from the infrastructure and services and have poor adaptive capacity to overcome the development deficits that are inherently more profound in these regions.
It is no surprise then that climate change issues and the environmental movement are perceived by some as not having the same level of priority in poor black communities, as do other more pressing and immediate issues such as war and violence, education, food security and health care, all of which are in fact linked to climate change. Also, perhaps this is where the perception that black people do not care about climate change and environmental issues, stems from. Indeed, some black people would be cynical if you asked them to forget their concerns about poverty, violence, and systemic racism in favour of joining the cause to save the environment, as would climate denialists from all race groups – this is not solely a black person stance. The point here is not whether or not black people care, but whether there is a great enough focus on the racially oppressive systems that have been a silent partner to climate change impacts that are condemning large proportions of poor black communities to dire circumstances.
The thing about climate change impacts is that they are so critical that for the world to continue functioning as it does, where some live comfortably at the expense of others who are engulfed by the backdrop of poverty and inequality (often poor black and brown people) and bear the brunt of climate risks, this requires a great sacrifice. The sacrifice of people and places; those who would work in the mines and die of lung cancer, or those whose lands and water would be poisoned for generations to come from oil spills. The reality is that often, those who are sacrificed are people of colour, condemned by a system of structural racism and othering.
Until these perceptions change, until we are able to recognise the issues of othering and environmental racism, that are excluding poor people of colour from environmental movements and climate change discourse (despite their disproportionate exposure to climate change risks and environmental degradation), as an equally important issue, only then will we be able to acknowledge that these issues are not removed from climate change issues, and only then will we begin to address the problem of a lack of diversity and the lack of a presence of minority groups in the environmental movement.
So what is to be done? What we need now is more opportunities for black people to rise up to leadership positions as role models, fighting against climate change issues but with the interest of black communities at heart. We need to think about how we can reach more of the next generation of black “born-frees” from all class groups, to build a new era from the wreckage left by the Apartheid era. How we can make climate change issues relevant for them? How do we bring them into the fold and make them comfortable working in an environments where they will probably be a minority? How do we nurture in them the skillsets that are required to work in this complex field? We need to help young black people understand that climate change is about so much more than melting icecaps and polar bears, and in fact is linked to all issues that are real to them (such as crime, healthcare, unemployment, food security, education, etc.). Perhaps, those of us who are already working in the climate change domain have a greater responsibility to bringing this change.
One thing is for sure, it will begin by an understanding that the complex issues of climate change impacts and environmental justice cannot be solved in a world where racial injustice prevails.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in her private capacity