How Racism is Sabotaging our Future
Trees, animals, rivers and glaciers. These are the cover stories for climate change. Most of us first encountered the concept of global warming when we were shown the photo of an emaciated polar bear. We associate climate change with slow processes: warming temperatures and rising sea levels. Scientists and governments confirm our assumptions by setting various deadlines at least 10 to 30 years away. The end of the world seems so distant…
Doomsday scenarios are no longer constrained to the realm of science-fiction, they are the bleak reality of millions of people across the globe.
From the start, climate change has been an unjust battle. While hurricanes and wildfires are not prejudiced, vulnerable communities bear the brunt of the devastation due to institutionalised racism and imperialist expansion. Global warming exacerbates air pollution through higher ground level concentrations of ozone and more frequent wildfires. As a result, black communities, already disproportionally exposed to industrial pollutants compared to their white counterparts, have to face dangerously high levels of pollution on a daily basis.
“Climate change is a threat multiplier, says Natasha DeJarnett. [It] increases the risk of adverse health outcomes.” The rise of extreme weather events are being felt first-hand by farmers across the world. According to a report from the IPCC, if global temperatures surpass the threshold set by the Paris Agreement by 2C, arable lands would turn to deserts. Additionally rising temperatures create more favourable conditions for disease spread, decimating crops and livestock. Minorities, often forced to live in so-called ‘food deserts’, have little access to healthy, nutritious food. As certain crops become rare commodities, the hefty price tag will push these communities to increasingly rely on cheap, processed foods.
Minorities have had to face discriminatory state and corporate policies, exposing them to the growing threat of global warming. Now, they have to face an increasingly rigged system that favours the wealthy. Flood relief schemes have been redesigned to attribute aid based on the value of assets - the more valuable, the more economic relief. Stripped of resources and support, these communities scramble to rebuild their homes or relocate.
In our capitalist world, climate change is simply another problem to cash in on. Rescue companies for the elite are popping up like mushrooms. Where most victims huddled in Best Westerns or gymnasiums during the wildfires that ravaged the West Coast, the wealthy were lodged in 5-star hotels while the quick intervention of private firefighter crews saved their residences from destruction courtesy of their pricey insurance.
While the white and wealthy are relatively insulated from the effects of climate change, there is growing concern amongst people of colour who have to face even greater adversities with dwindling resources. Approximately 57% of African Americans and 70% of Latinx communities are alarmed about the climate crisis compared to whites (49%), highlighting the disproportionate effect on vulnerable communities. So why is the climate movement predominantly white?
Ayana Johnson decried in her piece for The Washington Post: “How can we expect Black Americans to focus on climate when we are so at risk on our streets, in our communities, and even within our homes?”. We, the privileged, perceive the climate movement as the fight of the century, a fight that will define generations to come. It’s easy to devote time and resources when our existential crisis is how much plastic we consume. But for people of colour, who have to watch over their backs every day, their minds are consumed by fear and worry. Injustice steals precious brain power and creative hours – when minorities could be developing disruptive technologies or shattering glass ceilings, they find themselves rallying for justice and equality.
Amidst all the violence and injustice, some have still joined the fight against climate change. But even amongst the ranks of a movement advocating for collective human survival, racism is rife. Isra Hirsi, a 16-year-old activist from Minnesota, joined a statewide advocacy group where she witnessed microagressions from white activists towards people of colour.
Racism undermines the efforts of the movement by sidelining the communities that are most impacted by climate changes. In the US alone, that’s 23 million African Americans who could contribute to the climate movement. While the urgency of climate change has gained momentum, there still remains a lot of work to be done and an extra pair of hands (or 23 million) can be a game-changer.
We need to create a more inclusive community. We need to amplify the voices of people of colour. We need to expand the discussion beyond trees and corals. We need to take a stand against racism.
Only then can the fight against climate change reach its full potential.