Anti-racism and the environment movement

Fighting injustice and oppression is key to solving shared global problems. Find out why we must embed anti-racist practices into our climate campaigns.

17 Dec 2021

In 2020, a fresh wave of protests of global protests helped restart conversations about systemic racism across institutions and movements – including the environment movement.

As a key member of the movement, we’re committed to learning how the legacies and current manifestations of racism affect people both at home and abroad, and how our response to the climate crisis may impact communities differently.

We must find fair and equitable solutions to the climate crisis that make the world a better place for those who are hardest hit. And we must make anti-racism central to our network of groups so that we create a more diverse and representative movement.

Why climate breakdown is a race issue

The climate crisis is a racist crisis. Industrialised countries, the majority of which are northern white countries, make up a combined 20% of the global population but are responsible for around 80% of emissions ever emitted.It's primarily countries in the global south like Mozambique and Haiti who are feeling the impacts of climate breakdown and who will continue to face the worst of its effects.

We’re not saying that climate change affects only Black people. However, it is communities in the Global South that bear the brunt of the consequences of climate change, whether physical – floods, desertification, increased water scarcity and tornadoes – or political: conflict and racist borders.

Alexandra Wanjiku Kelbert,Black Lives Matter UK

Injustice is at the root of the climate crisis, with multinational corporations and rich, white countries like the US, UK and Australia reaping the benefits of burning carbon and exploiting resources, leaving low-income communities to suffer the consequences.

Oppressive systems such as white supremacy, colonialism and the systematic dehumanisation of People of Colour and Indigenous Peoples have facilitated this extractivism over the centuries and allowed for the continued destruction of the environment. Climate and environmental breakdown cannot be separated out from other struggles for equality and racial justice.

Extractivism: exploitation of natural resources on a large scale

What is environmental racism?

Environmental racism is a term used to describe discriminatory environmental policies and practices that negatively impact Black, brown and minority ethnic communities more than white communities.

Examples of environmental racism include:

Putting justice at the heart of our work

In the UK, Black, brown and minority ethnic communities suffer most from the lack of green space and from worse air pollution. And globally, lower-income countries south of the equator (ie, the global south) who have contributed least to climate breakdown suffer the most from the impacts, experiencing cyclones and tropical storms, rising sea levels, disruption to food and agriculture systems and loss of habitat.

Although Black, brown and minority ethnic people have pioneered climate activism and resistance around the world, they're often left out of spaces where climate policies and agreements are made. Meanwhile, the industrialised north continues to benefit from the causes of climate breakdown and closes its borders to climate refugees despite contributing most to the cause of their displacement.

We need racial justice to be at the heart of the climate and environmental movement. That means acknowledging the uncomfortable truth that the UK's environmental movement remains overwhelmingly white and middle-class. It means listening more deeply to underrepresented voices, being honest about where we’ve got things wrong in the past and humble about how much we still need to learn.

What you can do

"The beauty of anti-racism is that you don’t have to pretend to be free of racism to be anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself."

Ijeoma Oluo, Author

Working together with a diverse range of people will help us build better solutions for a better world. As an organisation, with our supporters and with the wider network, we need to call out racism wherever we see it, and together build a more inclusive and just environmental movement.

Personal learning: There’s a lot we can do to understand how racism impacts on our fight for justice, within and beyond the climate and environmental movements. Awareness is crucial and we need to educate ourselves. Why not embark on some solo learning by exploring our set of resources on how climate and race intersect?

Learn with your group/ family/ community: Listen, learn and discuss with your community, whoever that may be. Becoming truly anti-racist means taking action that challenges racism, however this shows up. Start conversations, challenge oppressive behaviour, host reading groups, add anti-racism work as an agenda point in your next group meeting, share resources… the list goes on.

Allyship and solidarity

Don’t be afraid to start exploring what this could look like for you and for your community. We’re all learning and on a journey. We all have different experiences and will be coming to this work from different places. Enter with an inquisitive and open mind and work towards making it central to your campaigning on climate and the environment. Because if we’re going to save the planet, we’ll only do so through the liberation and emancipation of everyone who lives on it.

How to be a good ally

Privilege bingo! If you’re white, a cis-male (meaning you present and identify as male), heterosexual, and don’t experience any forms of disability, you’ve hit privilege bingo! That means that, in the UK, our society - and its various structures - works best for you.

While it might not feel like that, this is because those of us in positions of privilege are so used to how we experience things that we don’t recognise our way of going through the world is not universal. This is well explained by Reni Eddo Lodge in her book Why I’m Not Talking to White People who comes to learn how our structures make things so much harder for wheelchair users and disabled people when she has to commute carrying her bicycle.

Being privileged means we are in a position of power - and we can use that power to challenge the structures of inequality around us. This is being a good ally. Here are five tips on how you can use your privilege to be a good ally:

1. Listen

As a person in a position of privilege it’s likely you already take up more space than those from marginalised communities. Listening, and giving up space to others, is a way in which we can give a little bit of space back. We are surrounded by images and depictions of white, middle class, society - the mainstream. By listening we give back space but also learn about people who are underrepresented in our culture.

2. Ask questions

From fear of being rude we often hold back from asking someone about their experience, but without asking (and then listening!) we won’t learn! Asking questions, with humility and being mindful of the feelings of others, allows them to speak about their own experience and helps challenge incorrect assumptions.

3. Be prepared to be challenged

It may be that reading this list feels challenging - but you’re still here. That’s what we mean by being prepared to be challenged. Learning about power and privilege is not always comfortable. It can bring up a lot of feelings including guilt and defensiveness - but we need to do our best to overcome these feelings - because if we don’t we won’t change, and we won’t create a more equal society.

4. Intervene

In addition to being challenged, sometimes we need to challenge others. If you see behaviour that contributes to oppression, confront it. While this might be challenging for us, it takes the burden of responsibility for responding to oppression away from the person experiencing the oppression.

5. Educate yourself

Finally, take responsibility to learn about oppression so that you can become a stronger ally. While asking some questions can be important to learn about a person’s personal experience, it is not the duty of oppressed people to teach us about oppression - we need to do that for ourselves. To help you get started you we have put together a reading list on Climate Justice and Race that can be found here.