For many people, climate change is a modern-day phenomenon. But for black and indigenous people, as well as other colonised people of colour, we know that the roots of the environmental crisis go back much further and are inseparable from racial injustice.
The exploitation of our planet’s natural resources has always been closely linked to the exploitation of people of colour. My 72-year-old grandmother, Clara, was a sharecropper in Alabama during the late 1950s. From the age of 11, she was forced to work the same fields her enslaved ancestors had, pricking her finger on the boll of the cotton, sucking the blood out as she fearfully looked down, worried about poisonous snakes striking her heels. She tended to the land, helping white folks extract everything that could be sold. As she grew up, eventually leaving Alabama, she never wanted to touch the land again. It was full of too much pain and too much fear.
Attempting to dismantle the main drivers of climate change, including fossil fuel industries, is impossible if we do not dismantle the systems that uphold white supremacy, built to make a profit off the backs of black, brown and indigenous people. For it is this evil, which stretches back to when colonisation began, that has led humanity to its greatest existential crisis yet.An everyday reality for people of colour
Climate change is already an everyday reality for people of colour; it’s not something that’s going to happen in the distant future. We’re the ones more likely to be facing severe droughts or floods, or have our homes destroyed by hurricanes and cyclones.
What will it take to convince people that racial justice and climate justice are inseparable? Even if they do not feel it in their bones, as I and so many of my black, brown and indigenous siblings do, why do they not hear it screaming from the newspaper headlines?
Residents look on as flames burn through the bush in Lake Tabourie, Australia, January 2020.
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The most recent Australian wildfire crisis, from June 2019 to March 2020, caused outrage around the world. But you’re unlikely to have read about how the fires have affected Indigenous Australians. Cyclone Amphan, which led to at least 98 deaths and millions of people across Bangladesh and India being displaced in May, in the middle of the pandemic, also received less attention worldwide with western media continuing to put more value on white lives over those of people of colour.
There are countless other examples of how black, brown and indigenous people are already bearing the brunt of the climate crisis. We’ve seen severe droughts in Southern Africa, leading to food shortages for millions of people. We’ve seen black people in Louisiana’s ‘Cancer Alley’ die as a result of the toxic chemicals released by the large number of industrial plants located in or near their communities.
Queues to get water from a Gift of the Givers humanitarian water distribution point in South Africa, November 2019.
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We’ve seen Indigenous land guardians in the Amazon such as Paulo Paulino Guajajara slaughtered by extractive loggers. We’ve seen the US and Canadian governments give the go-ahead for oil pipelines—harming protesters in the process—to be built through indigenous lands, not caring about the numerous health and food sovereignty risks to the people who live there.We need to tackle racism to tackle climate change and vice versa
During the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve also seen black and Hispanic people die at much higher rates in the US, with similar findings for black and minority ethnic communities in the UK. It’s likely that air pollution in the most marginalised neighbourhoods has put poorer communities and people of colour at greater risk of hospitalisation and death from COVID-19.
Environmental racism is undoubtedly a huge issue all over the world. It’s why people living in black communities in the US are three times more likely to die from exposure to pollution than white people. It’s why waste from the US, UK and Australia is sent overseas to countries including Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia, creating a health hazard for the people living there. It’s why garment workers in countries such as Bangladesh, India and Cambodia are more likely to be exposed to hazardous chemicals, which pollute their waterways.
The global uprising we now see against racism, following the death of George Floyd in the US, is also a global uprising against the forces that put our planet and our existence as humans at risk. We must dismantle every system that oppresses each of us if we are to end the climate crisis and ensure that our communities are resilient and strong.
Quintella Williams feeds her baby whilst she awaits evacuation in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, September 2005.
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Institutional racism in the criminal justice system (which sees black people incarcerated at five times the rate of white people) means that black and brown prisoners are disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis, too; during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, incarcerated people in the Orleans Parish Prison were left chest-deep in water, without any of the supplies they needed. Meanwhile, New York City had no evacuation plan for Rikers Island jail during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, despite the fact that the jail was in an evacuation zone.
Maybe it’s overwhelming for people to see just how many injustices are linked to the climate crisis. But Earth is our only home. Everything we are, or will be, stems from it. And so much of the injustice that this world contains was created by racism and colonialism, of feeling the need to own or destroy another’s body so that one could take from Earth.
The land has been weeping tears of our blood for a long time. Maybe now, in this global moment of reckoning, we will be able to wash those tears away.Also read:
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