The Inextricable Link Between Climate Justice and Racial Justice

By Mark Watts, Executive Director of C40 Cities

There can be no climate justice without racial justice, and there can be no racial justice without climate justice. This remains true even as Black Lives Matter protests command less prominence in news headlines and social media feeds.

This is a discussion we are continuing to have in C40, as we look at how we can best combine climate action with anti-racism. Looking back at the tumultuous events of 2020, the original protests against the racist murder of George Floyd in May by a Minneapolis police officer has now deepened into a broader, and much needed, debate about how the cancer of racism and colonialism pollutes all aspects of modern society. The global movement for racial justice has also grown in the context of a coronavirus pandemic which has laid bare huge health disparities along racial lines. But the climate crisis is inextricably linked to racial justice; to quote the US environmental advocate Hop Hopkins: “We’re in this environmental mess because we have declared parts of our planet disposable…. You can’t have climate change without sacrifice zones, and you can’t have sacrifice zones without disposable people, and you can’t have disposable people without racism…..When the United States [or any other wealthy nation] pours carbon pollution into the air, knowing that people in countries that have contributed much less to the climate crisis will face the worst of the consequences, that is white supremacy.”

Nothing seems to illustrate this point as powerfully as the two maps below, which compare the countries with the highest per capita CO2 emissions (darkest red in the first map) with the countries which rank the highest in terms of climate vulnerability (red and orange in the second map).

Climate Vulnerability Index 2017. Source: UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

It is clear that environmental injustice is a problem on a global scale. Nations that have done the least to cause the climate crisis are facing the most severe impacts from climate breakdown, and more often than not, it is white majority populations that are doing the biggest damage and Black, Brown and Indigenous people who will feel the effects.

But given the way that racism infects all of society it is no surprise to find environmental injustice in evidence at the local level also; a study by the University of Minnesota found that white people were exposed to around 17% less pollution than they created, while Black people were exposed to 56% more pollution than they created and Hispanic people were exposed to 63% more. Research in England has found that the worst levels of air pollution is seen in neighbourhoods where more than 20% of the population are non-white.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed longstanding inequalities, visiting misery on communities that were already vulnerable. These drivers of social injustice are the same drivers behind environmental breakdown. As Rhiana Gunn-Wright, one of the lead architects of the US Green New Deal has said: “The people most likely to die from toxic fumes are the same people most likely to die from Covid-19…It’s like we are watching a preview of the worst possible impacts of the climate crisis roll right before our eyes.”

In other words, the current health crisis underscores the rationale for treating the environment, health and social justice as interlinked. When the Pope published his Laudato Si, linking inequality and climate breakdown, and even more so when ideas of the Green New Deal began to develop in the USA and Europe, some in the climate community feared it was a mistake. Trying to tackle economic inequality, racial injustice, funding for public services, and arguing for a new economic model all in one package seemed like taking on too many battles at once.

But the events of the past few months, from the way the COVID crisis has hit the poorest hardest, to the way it has been mis-handled by the same science-denying leaders who block action on climate breakdown, to the huge, global movement for racial justice, have shifted public opinion so that there is no appetite among urban citizens for a return to business as usual. Instead we need to build back better, which is why C40 mayors have come together to launch the C40 Mayors Agenda for a Green and Just Recovery so that each city can take inspiration from each other in achieving a recovery that is just, green, and underpinned by the principles of C40’s Global Green New Deal.

For all my adult life the pervasive view in western countries has been that the current model of political economy is ‘natural’ and that there are ‘rules’ of economics that prevent change. This myopia, and associated fetish with measuring success through the prism of economic growth, has been the single biggest barrier to tackling both inequality and climate breakdown, and it has underpinned failure to tackle prevailing racism in society. It has made it near impossible in many countries to convince people that things can be different to the way they are now.

Of course, we now know that this economic model, in addition to creating and exacerbating inequalities and stimulating a pending environmental catastrophe, is simply wrong. The concept of ‘rational economic man [sic]’, who in the words of ‘Doughnut Economics’ author, Kate Raworth, was presumed to “stand alone with money in his hand, ego in his heart, a calculator in his head and nature at his feet”, underpins neo-liberal economics but entirely fails to explain the real world. In effect, we have been trying to force people into an economic system that benefits a tiny minority, rather than building societies that meet the needs of everyone, values nature, and protects the ecosystem that supports all life. We are all worse off as a result, because inequality weakens society and so damages everyone, but the biggest losers have disproportionately been people of colour in every country, but particularly those living in the global south.

The rapid and dramatic reshaping of our society over the past few months has opened a space to challenge assumptions about what is possible. “What was invisible yesterday is suddenly clear and obvious” said the British/Nigerian historian David Olusoga, writing how people in my home country awakened to the fact that our current prosperity is built firmly on the foundation of our slave-trading colonial past. It is also why, in their Agenda for a Green and Just Recovery, C40 mayors have taken inspiration from what we might call ‘twenty-first century economists’ like Kate Raworth and Mariana Mazzucato; they aim to position themselves as entrepreneurial city governments unleashing the power of public investment, regulation and public services to create and shape markets that enable people to thrive within environmental boundaries.

At C40 the principle of equity has long been integral to our work. Cities from the Global South make up half of C40’s membership and we ensure that inclusive climate action is at the heart of our programmes. At the global, national, and local levels, it is the communities endangered by systemic racism that are hardest hit by both COVID and climate breakdown. Those who took to the streets in 2019 to demand climate action have also demonstrated in cities around the world in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. These movements are intertwined, and it is our responsibility as climate activists to ensure that both succeed.

These are undoubtedly momentous times. We were already on the precipice of descending into runaway climate breakdown and the COVID pandemic has revealed even more acutely how fragile human civilisation is. Now a rapidly-growing movement for racial justice has reminded us all of the deep and damaging inequalities in our societies. Let’s waste no more time in dismantling the failed economics of past centuries and the rotten theories behind them, and move rapidly into a new phase of human development based on racial, social and climate justice.

C40 is a leading global network of cities taking bold and ambitious climate action to deliver a healthy, equitable and sustainable future for all.

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