Why the fight for climate justice is a fight for justice itself

Movements are overlapping to take an intersectional approach to activism

Stephen Melkisethian, Flickr
7 September 2020
Ming Chun Tang
7 September 2020
Ming Chun Tang

Ask any guide, teacher or life coach, and they’ll tell you that the first step to breaking a pattern is identifying and recognizing exactly what it is.

When it comes to patterns of injustice, it appears COVID-19 and climate change are taking care of this first step for us.

The pandemic is exposing the vast inequalities in health and income across the globe. Racial and ethnic minorities are far more likely to die or be hospitalized after contracting the coronavirus. And in much of the Global South, lockdown measures have left children facing malnutrition and migrant workers stranded and out of work.

Similarly, 80 years from now, climate change could kill as many people as all infectious diseases, and these deaths will be concentrated in the world’s poorest countries.

There are countless more examples of injustices caused by inequitable global systems – from climate-induced migration to uneven access to health care to plagues of locusts causing food insecurity. It would be an injustice in itself to try and capture them all here.

What matters more is realizing that these are not different patterns of injustice that resemble one another. Rather, climate justice, social justice and racial justice are all one and the same.

So too, then, is the fight against them.

“We have to tackle these crises collectively, or we cannot tackle them at all,” says Varshini Prakash, co-founder of the Sunrise Movement in the U.S., who featured in a recent GLF Live.

“We need to address the inherent inequalities in our system that lead to some people breathing worse-quality air, experiencing the brunt of storms and being able to recover far slower than other people,” Prakash says. “Those inequalities almost always fall along lines of race, class and gender.”

The trails of legacies

Varshini Prakash, center, addresses a crowd of activists. Prakash has focused on intersectionality in the Sunrise Movement she founded. Joe Brusky, Flickr
Varshini Prakash, center, addresses a crowd of activists. Joe Brusky, Flickr

The next step in tackling these injustices is a step backward, to understand the historical roots of where we are now. Global inequality has increased dramatically over the last 200 years, driven in large part by colonialism and industrialization, which drove economic development in Europe and its settler colonies but hindered it in other parts of the world. Climate change is exacerbating this inequality: the gap between the richest and poorest 10 percent of countries is now 25 percent wider than it would have been without global warming, according to one study.

In many cases, colonization also degraded the landscapes of colonized nations, making them particularly vulnerable to natural disasters, such as hurricanes. Deforestation in India has been attributed to the construction of railways by British colonialists, while much of the Caribbean was stripped of its forests to build plantations.

In Jamaica, for example, the colonial plantation economy has left a legacy of dependence on intensive agriculture, with sugar, bananas, cocoa and coffee still among the country’s major commodity exports. Slash-and-burn practices are widespread and, with their dangers amplified by climate change and global warming, are contributing to bushfires and deforestation. “A lot of these practices were inherited from colonialism – the idea of having to burn away vegetation to create space for added agricultural production,” says Jhannel Tomlinson, a Jamaican climate adaptation researcher and activist.

“Habits are hard to break,” Tomlinson adds, “and because these practices have been passed down through generations, it’s very difficult to tell farmers that they’re harming the environment, because this is all they know, and it’s hard for them to transition to a more sustainable way of farming.”

Intersectionality in environmentalism

Women in Nepal, where Sijapati Basnett has conducted her research on intersectionality. Mokhamad Edliadi, CIFOR
Women in Nepal, where Sijapati Basnett has conducted her research on intersectionality. Mokhamad Edliadi, CIFOR

Jumping back to the present, and into the climate space specifically, many activists are now calling for an intersectional approach to tackling injustices. The term ‘intersectionality’ refers to how different forms of social identity such as race, ethnicity, gender, class and sexuality overlap, particularly in the experiences of marginalized groups that often face multiple layers of oppression.

“It doesn’t make sense to just focus on a binary view, [such as] that all women are vulnerable and all men are privileged,” says Bimbika Sijapati Basnett, a researcher on gender and co-author of a CIFOR manual on intersectionality in forestry. “Issues of vulnerability that are faced by urban women, for instance, are much more linked to issues around pollution, waste and water management, whereas in rural areas, it’s more about agriculture.”

Rather than neatly dividing people into distinct categories, Sijapati Basnett believes it is important to recognize how overlapping identities can affect how they experience oppression. Much of her work focuses on Nepal, where caste, social class, gender and ethnicity all intersect to form complex identities that evolve over time.

“Sometimes development programs set quotas for low-caste women or ethnic-minority women without understanding that there are hierarchies within those groups,” she says, noting that some ethnic minority groups are in fact quite affluent. “We need to understand broad parameters of social difference but also have the flexibility to adapt and change.”

Diversifying the climate movement

A member of tree-planting initiative Plant for the Planet's 'climate justice ambassador' training program for young environmentalists worldwide. Plant for the Planet, Flickr
A member of tree-planting initiative Plant for the Planet’s ‘climate justice ambassador’ training program for young environmentalists worldwide. Plant for the Planet, Flickr

Flexibility also means recognizing that some practices can unintentionally exclude people from these marginalized groups. The movement to ban plastic straws, for example, has been criticized as ableist, as it ignores the needs of people who might be unable to pick up a cup. Similarly, climate activist group Extinction Rebellion has been called out (and apologized) for relying on mass-arrest tactics that inherently exclude people of color.

Many climate activists of color have spoken out about the challenges of participating in a movement that, across much of the Global North, remains predominantly white and middle-class. “In a lot of places, I am usually the only person of color, which is a huge responsibility,” said Danick Trouwloon, a Netherlands-based activist originally from the Caribbean island of Curaçao. “All the faces are on you, and you become like an ambassador for any experiences with color. I struggled a lot with that.”

Yet communities on the frontline of the climate crisis have much to offer the climate movement, and Prakash believes it is crucial to ensure that they take an active role. “Many of the things that Greta Thunberg has been saying have been said by lots of Indigenous, black and brown leaders, particularly from island nations, for so long,” she points out. “And yet they have not been uplifted in nearly the same way.”

“Those closest to the pain can speak toward the solutions that we need with the greatest clarity,” adds Prakash. “It is absolutely essential that those folks have a place in our movements, otherwise we’re going to have major blind spots.”

This year’s mass demonstrations for racial justice are prompting many in the climate movement to engage more deeply with issues of race and ethnicity. “Something that I find really positive over the past month is how easy these discussions are to have now,” says Trouwloon. “In the past, you could often feel the tension in the room when racism was mentioned, but I think now people are really listening to each other.”

“That conversation is being had much more often now, and there’s a lot more space for me to say things that may be uncomfortable – but I speak to my experience.”

Building climate solidarity

Young activists in North Carolina, U.S. Stephen Melkisethian, Flickr
Young activists in North Carolina, U.S. Stephen Melkisethian, Flickr

One of the more uncomfortable realities of the climate crisis is the need for the world’s affluent citizens to cut their excess consumption and carbon footprints.

Global resource consumption is currently around 70 percent over the Earth’s regenerative capacity, according to the Global Footprint Network. Most of that excess is attributable to the Global North, with the average person in North America consuming almost six times as many resources as the average person in Africa, and around five times the planet’s biocapacity.

Some scholars and activists argue that the Global North has a moral duty to drastically cut its excess consumption in order to allow resources for the Global South to attain a decent standard of living. This process, often referred to as degrowth or a transition to a steady-state economy, involves a paradigm shift away from infinite growth in consumption and towards the pursuit of sufficiency.

Tomlinson believes the first step toward reducing consumption is at the individual level. “As individuals in the Global North, you need to recognize how you are contributing to these challenges and to see how you can live greener and cleaner,” she says.

And with funding at a premium for many grassroots climate-change projects, Tomlinson believes donations and volunteering can also make a crucial difference. “Where possible, individuals can contribute in cash, or in expertise to assist local communities in implementing these projects,” she suggests.

Equally important is the need to build solidarity across racial, ethnic, socioeconomic and intergenerational lines. “Our allies in the Global North increasingly have a role to play in amplifying our voices,” Tomlinson continues. “They can utilize these platforms to highlight our plight in the Global South and to share some of the challenges we face.”

“It is an all-hands-on-deck moment to stop the climate crisis,” Prakash agrees. “Let’s be clear about that: young people cannot do it by ourselves – we definitely need other generations to team up with.”

Strengthening ties with the Global South could also bring valuable lessons for the climate movement in the Global North – such as learning from island communities on how to deal with scarce resources. “You have to make do with what you have,” Trouwloon says. “If you lose a fishery, you’ve lost that fishery. You can’t move up along the coast and find another area to exploit.

“That could be a metaphor for the entire planet – how we’re also an island in the universe. If we make a mess out of it, we don’t really have a Planet B.”


Leave a Reply