Climate justice is a black and white issue – so why isn’t the environmentalist movement?

Why is there such a lack of diversity within the environmentalist movement when the people most affected by climate change tend to be the very poorest, predominantly from black, minority and ethnic communities? Poppy Noor investigates.

The environmental crisis is not a white crisis.

Just look at any of the tools mapping those areas most at risk to the effect of global climate change, and note the disparity between majority white and majority non-white regions of the world.

Even in the UK and the USA, those most affected by climate change tend to be the very poorest, predominantly from black, minority and ethnic communities.

Evidence offered at a recent High Court enquiry into the government’s efforts to tackle air pollution indicated that white-British people are exposed to 14.9% less air pollution than other ethnic groups. Meanwhile, in both urban and rural areas, black-British populations are exposed to the most air pollution, at a rate almost 30% higher than that of their white counterparts.

To put it bluntly: poorer and non-white communities have the most to worry about when it comes to climate change, so why does the movement look so white from the inside out?

Craig Bennett, CEO of Friends of the Earth, last year called the environmentalist movement a “white, middle class ghetto”.  This whiteness is reflected in the leadership and the staffing of environmental organisations, which tends to be even less diverse than that of the private sector.

Activists in the UK have also taken to the press to highlight the issue. And yet the problem remains.

In an effort to find out more, I went to the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. This is one of the UK’s poorest and most ethnically diverse areas, with a huge Bangladeshi population.

Whilst the wealthier residents take business trips from the nearby City Airport, over 8% of residents in the borough are being killed by air pollution, ranking Tower Hamlets the third highest in the country for pollution-related mortality.

According to the Global Climate Risk Index, Bangladesh was the country sixth most affected by climate change between 1995 and 2015. As many of the Tower Hamlets’ residents remain in touch with friends and relatives in Bangladesh, they are likely to have deeply personal connections to the impacts of climate change.

I wanted to know what members of this diverse community thought about the environmental movement, and how high up climate justice was on their agendas.

All it did was heighten my awareness. I came back like, Mum, Dad I saw dead bodies floating, I saw snakes.

Al is a British-born Bangladeshi. He missed his GCSE examinations when Bangladesh’s biggest flood in the last century trapped him in his family’s village. His parents came to England in the 1960s looking for a better life, but the problems back home in Bangladesh as a result of the climate crisis were a constant presence as he was growing up.

“We lived in a part of Bangladesh that was more affected by floods,” he says. “Our crops would get messed up, our house would get messed up. My parents would have to work hard to get the money to rebuild it. That conversation would be happening nearly every year.”

Al is a politically active individual. He spent years as a councillor for a local party, and talks to me about fighting the National Front in his youth. But when I ask him about climate change, his voice drops off: “I would say I’m in the middle… It’s not about life and death for me.”

Throughout my interviews with members of marginalised communities, I noted not only a high level of awareness of environmental crises, but also the profoundly personal connection to these issues: from stories of family “back home” suffering, to fuel poverty and insufficient access to hot water, even in London.

Yet interviewees almost unanimously contested that the environment rated lower on their political agenda than other issues.

If someone asked me what the main problems in the world were … I wouldn’t say that we don’t have enough trees.

Minaar is doing an environmental leadership course in Tower Hamlets through the youth charity UpRising. She recently completed a campaign for MADE in Europe, a Muslim charity looking at post-conflict sustainability.

She tells me that the project was appealing to her because it offered the opportunity to work on a project independently abroad. But when I ask her if she would have been interested in the environment otherwise, she gives me a decisive “no”.

“If someone asked me what the main problems in the world were … I wouldn’t say that we don’t have enough trees.”

Minaar explains that she has never felt able to “do something” about climate change: “The generation above us feel that [poverty] has been right in front of them. The best way for them to deal with it is to take it into their own hands by sending money home. In that way, the individual impacts of poverty feel more manageable and more pressing than climate change.”

The difficulty of taking action on political issues, whilst contending with economic inequality, is something I hear again and again in interviews.

I am talking to Trevor Phillips, former chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, about why the environmental movement might be uninviting for people from black and minority ethnic groups.

“To put it bluntly, it’s the look of the thing. Broadly it includes white, middle class people, and they don’t look like them in any way, shape or form.”

While he suggests it’s not important to have ultimate diversity in every political movement, he certainly thinks it’s a problem for the environmental cause.

“If your organisation isn’t appealing to ethnic minorities, then that’s a quarter of the population in about 20 years. So the question for the environmental movement is…why is their message so narrow that it doesn’t appeal to so much of the population?”

It seems clear that climate justice is a cause that feels inaccessible to a large part of the public, regardless of class or race.

Emma Howard, who works as an independent journalist, spoke to me about the way the environmental agenda is packaged for the public. Referring to the ‘For the Love of’ campaign she says: “In a way, it’s a good narrative because it shows just how many things climate change is affecting, and making it relevant to some people.

“But it reduces how huge an issue this is for those in deprived communities and instead is talking about people who love chocolate.”

Rebecca, who identifies as white and middle class, has been interested in environmental campaigning since she was young, setting up local green fairs at school. She has now set up her own environmental business, but she tells me: “You feel bloody insecure next to these people. I completely get the feeling of ‘it’s not really a movement for us’ kind of thing.”

“I can’t afford to eat superfoods.”

She speaks passionately about the inaccessibility of the environmental movement, from the organisations that hire people, right down to the sustainable foods people are asked to eat: “I’ve been on the verge of benefits for nine months and I can’t afford to do the things I preach about as an environmental campaigner. I can’t afford to take voluntary posts working in environmental causes. I can’t afford to eat superfoods.”

Rebecca consulted on a research project exploring the possibility of edible insects as a sustainable food source. She says she found that over 70% of companies selling edible insects were marketing them as a high-end superfood.

Such marketing rules out many potential customers, and indicates that in the long term the sustainable food industry could simply end up as another exploitative, consumerist trend rather than a practical solution to food poverty and sustainability.

Josh is a cross-sectional campaigner, and part of the Black Lives Matter UK movement. He is hell-bent on making sure the environmental campaign speaks to all people. At present, he feels that the narrow focus of the environmental movement undermines its aims and legitimacy: “Some of the placards at the marches I went to would say things like ‘for the love of bananas…of coffee…of skiing’.”

So what would the movement gain by becoming more diverse?  Josh believes that context is everything. He talks about being able to speak to a community in their own language.

When he campaigns on climate justice, he doesn’t talk about coffee, he talks about poverty and feeling ignored. When he knocks on doors in his West London borough and links the expansion of Heathrow to the deaths of more poor, non-white people, it feels real because it is not read out from a fact-sheet. He doesn’t have a set of rehearsed lines: he uses local colloquialisms and slang.

Having activists who are representative and understand the problems of their neighbours is a simple enough solution, and by simple, I don’t mean unsophisticated.

Josh’s campaigning can do so much because he is rooted in his local community, its context and the language that it speaks. As an outsider, thinking about a way to mobilise his community seems alien to me – as it must do to other campaigners trying to build a campaign from the outside-in.

Josh points out how the indigenous protestors of North Dakota refuse to make theirs a single-issue campaign. By linking the construction of the pipeline to cross-country, cross-racial, and cross-cultural issues, the protestors have succeeded in garnering support and solidarity from across the world. “[They are] doing it for their land, their family. These ideas give people a grounded fervour that compels people to think about it differently,” he says.

For Farzana, part of the radical arts and resistance collective Platform London, the intersectionality of these issues is fundamental to their solution. She runs ‘Voices that Shake!’, a project which endeavours to create sustainable movements for change within marginalised communities.

I ask her if the people she works with campaign on such issues, and she tells me my definition needs tweaking:

“For some people, ‘resistance’ is putting your children in the bath tub together and scrimping on hot water yourself. Because forget ‘heat or eat’ – you can’t afford water in this country. That is ‘resistance’ against the state and corporations.”

She highlights the problematic dichotomy that labels what is and isn’t “campaigning”. Staying at home because you can’t afford to eat – well, that’s just staying at home. But waving placards? That’s campaigning. Farzana’s more nuanced definition necessarily blurs the line between the two.

However, it doesn’t make it easier to understand what incentivizes those communities who are not out on the picket line. How do you turn saving hot water and staying at home into a mass movement?

Farzana points to current campaign attitudes: “We want a result quickly. We want change now. But we don’t want to spend the time it takes building up links in the local community. Our communities have the knowledge of their own suffering and the solutions. This is what is most likely to lead to real sustainable change.”

It is activists like Josh who are trying to combat this. He tells me of his early experiences within the climate change movement which left him feeling like a token, rather than a respected voice. Talking about the London Climate March in November 2015, he says:

“It was so clear cut that they wanted indigenous people to lead the march, but not to speak… They want to offer the analysis, you just offer the experience.”

Farzana identifies one possible contributing factor to the homogeneous face of climate justice, saying: “It’s an NGO industrial complex. People have careers based on peoples’ struggles.

“When we think of climate justice often the images are of polar bears when actually black and brown people can’t breathe.”

Emma Howard appears to agree, referring to: “hierarchies within the media, politics and the NGO community. That makes it really hard for people who have less money and fewer relationships they can depend on in terms of their career, who are less networked, and not in London, to get into those sectors… That doesn’t mean that other people don’t care, just that it’s harder to get their voices heard.”

At the Platform offices in South London, I am finding out what it might look like to bring those peripheral voices into the centre: “At Platform, we don’t talk about climate change. We talk about climate justice… Our definition is about ensuring that nobody is left behind. And we reject this false notion of scarcity. There is enough for everyone in this world, it’s the distribution that’s wrong.”

That sounds like a fair enough ethos, but it requires a monumental shift in narrative. It requires that governments, corporations and even some environmental advocates acknowledge that world climate disaster is predicated on the exploitation of some communities over others; that to avoid catastrophe requires a vast scaling down of corporate interests and re-alignment with the interests of the people, their land, and their health.

Climate change speaks to different people for different reasons.

As vast numbers are increasingly forced into environmental migrancy, contributing to the diversification of populations across the world, it seems clear that something has to change.

The environmental movement, both in this country and across the western world, will have to create space at the centre for the narratives of currently marginalised communities if it wants to generate real, long-lasting impact. Without the voices of those with the most intimate knowledge of climate change, progress will be impossible to achieve.

Banner photo by niekverlaan.