Climate change is a racial justice issue

first nations women protesting
Kate Bisogno

6th August 2021


What is environmental racism? The term, first coined in 1982 by US civil rights leader Dr. Benjamin Chavis, can be defined as ‘‘racial discrimination in environmental policy-making, the enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of communities of colour for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities, and the history of excluding people of colour from leadership of the ecology movements”.


The birth of the environmental justice movement took place in the 1980s in the US, as reports and findings came out that indicated that communities of colour are disproportionately affected by health hazards through policies and practices that essentially force them to live closer to toxic waste sites and pollutants. 


The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, which began in 2014, is a clear example of ongoing environmental racism in the US. In a cost-saving move, the city’s water supply was switched from Detroit’s system to the Flint River. As a direct result of inadequate treatment and lack of water testing, residents of Flint were burdened with a series of major health and water quality issues, including foul-smelling and discoloured water, causing skin rashes, itchy skin, and hair loss.


Complaints by residents were continuously ignored by government officials and the Michigan Civil Rights Commission concluded that such a poor governmental response to this crisis was clearly due to systemic racism. 


While there are unfortunately many examples of environmental racism and discrimination in the US, it is clear that climate injustice is a global problem.  


Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate highlighted in a now-viral Twitter video that she could for the first time in her life understand ‘‘the definition of the word racism,’’ after she was cut out of an image with four other climate activists by US news agency Associated Press in early 2020. The image also included young activists Greta Thunberg, Loukina Tille, Isabelle Axelsson and Luisa Neubauer, with Vanessa being the only one removed from the picture.


‘‘We don’t deserve this. Africa is the least emitter of carbons, but we are the most affected by the climate crisis. You erasing our voices won’t change anything. You erasing our stories won’t change anything,’’ she also said in the emotional Twitter video accusing the media of blatant racism.


“Climate justice recognises that the people who suffer the worst environmental consequences are often the ones least responsible for climate change.”

It was also discovered by Twitter users that some media outlets had actually misidentified Vanessa Nakate as Zambian activist Natasha Mwansa.


Many fellow activists and supporters came to Vanessa Nakate’s defence, highlighting the urgent need to address issues of climate injustice and the importance of opening up a conversation on racism and lack of representation within environmental movements themselves.


Climate justice recognises that the people who suffer the worst environmental consequences are often the ones least responsible for climate change.


As a result, not only is climate change a racial justice issue, it is also a socioeconomic issue as well. Youth Work Ireland’s Climate Injustice Report 2020 found that “71 per cent of landfill sites and waste incinerators in the country are located in areas that are below the national average of deprivation, as indicated by the Pobal HP Deprivation Index.’’


Former President of Ireland and Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, established her eponymous foundation – Climate Justice, which is a platform for solidarity, education and advocacy on the urgent need to secure justice around the world for the poor and marginalized people vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.


Mary Robinson also currently holds the position of Chair of The Elders, which is a non-governmental organization of public figures, brought together in 2007 by Nelson Mandela. The Elders promote climate justice and the need to eliminate discrimination and encourage diversity within environmental spaces. 


One such blog post on The Elders’ website includes Colombian-American climate activist Jamie Margolin, in which she outlines how ‘‘the fight for climate justice and the fight for social justice are inseparable.’’


Jamie highlights that as a white Latina, she is someone with privilege within the climate movement and she calls on the climate community as a whole to support the Black Lives Matter movement. She points out that while the climate itself isn’t racist, the systems that caused this climate crisis are. Therefore, it is the responsibility of particularly those in the environmental movement who are not black, to use their privilege to support and stand up for racial justice on a global scale. 


As Jamie Margolin puts it, ‘‘if you care about climate justice, you have to care about racial justice too.’’




Featured photo by Pascal Bernardon

This article was supported by: STAND Environment Editor Anastasiya + Programme Assistant Alex


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