Written by:
Nannette Youssef

Racial justice and the climate emergency

Climate emergency
Read time:
7 minutes

Racial justice and the climate emergency

Globally, entrenched racialised inequalities mean that people of colour and Indigenous groups are the most severely affected by the impacts of the climate emergency. In response, writes the Runnymede Trust’s Nannette Youssef, a parliamentary inquiry has been launched to examine the issues. 

Around the world, people of colour are being disproportionately affected by the climate and environmental emergencies, despite, historically, having little involvement in creating them. This is due to global systemic racism, a term that describes how a society’s institutions, structures and practices harm people of colour in ways their white counterparts do not experience. 

This is why, in mid 2023, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Race and Community launched an inquiry into the relationship between racism and the climate and environmental emergencies. The Runnymede Trust acts as secretariat to the APPG. 

The majority of countries affected by extreme weather events caused by the climate and environmental emergencies are in the Global South. For example, Mozambique experienced an estimated $3.2 billion in losses in infrastructure, production and social sectors in 2019 due to cyclones exacerbated by global heating, while contributing only 0.02 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions. 

In addition to their vulnerability to climate and environmental emergencies, long histories of colonialism and extraction by British and European powers have led to these countries struggling to mitigate and adapt to the climate and environmental emergencies. 

For example, in Nigeria’s Niger Delta, decades of oil spills by Shell have polluted the water and soil, with those living in the region experiencing poverty, dysfunctional economic growth and chronic underdevelopment. Exclusive oil exploration licences were granted by the British colonial government in 1938, and Nigeria is now the biggest producer of oil in Africa and the continent’s largest economy. Yet the Niger Delta region, where the exploration has been concentrated, lacks basic amenities and infrastructure, including a lack of roads, schools, drinkable water, and medical facilities.

‘People of colour are more than three times more likely to live in areas with pollution levels classed as “very high”’

Meanwhile, in the UK, people of colour, those living in areas of high deprivation, and marginalised groups such as refugees, asylum seekers, disabled people and those experiencing homelessness are also more exposed to the effects of the climate and environmental emergencies, from the disproportionate exposure and vulnerability to air pollution to a lack of access to green spaces.

Across England, people of colour are more than three times more likely to live in areas with pollution levels classed as ‘very high’. Take, for example, the construction of the Silvertown Tunnel, which will run beneath the Thames between the Greenwich Peninsula in southeast London and the Silvertown area in Newham, east London. The tunnel’s construction alone is estimated to produce around 82,077 tonnes of carbon dioxide, as well as significantly increasing the amount of traffic in Newham.

Newham is an incredibly deprived and diverse borough: half of its children live in poverty and 71 per cent of the population are Black. On average, Newham residents are exposed to a level of air pollution a third higher than World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines, and it is estimated 96 residents die every year because of poor air quality.

Despite these clear injustices, it is increasingly recognised that not enough is being done to recognise the links between systemic racism and climate change. In 2020, Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakate was infamously cropped from a picture of white climate activists by the Associated Press, after she appeared at a joint press conference in Davos. 

What happened to Vanessa is part of a wider, systemic issue of environmental professionals, activists and leaders of colour being routinely ignored in media reports and academic literature, meaning that their stories and narratives of the environmental emergency are excluded from mainstream discourse. 

If the people most affected by the climate and ecological crisis are sidelined in decisions about solutions, the decisions made will only replicate the injustices we see in the current system. A Green New Deal – a set of policy proposals designed to address climate change in ways that also tackle inequalities and improve people’s quality of life – must be designed to benefit people in parts of the world blighted by resource extraction, not just those in the Global North who overwhelmingly consume these resources. 

‘Bringing environmental professionals, activists and leaders of colour from both the Global North and Global South into Westminster’

The APPG’s inquiry hopes to provide a space for the stories and narratives of people of colour to be told, firstly in written responses to our call for evidence, and secondly in oral evidence sessions which will run in parliament. 

By bringing environmental professionals, activists and leaders of colour from both the Global North and Global South into Westminster to tell their narratives on the environmental emergency to members of parliament and policymakers, we hope to begin a process of deconstructing the structural barriers that have too long excluded these organisations and individuals from spaces of power.

With COP28 having just come to a close, with a historic agreement in place to transition away from fossil fuels (albeit with the lack of a clear call for a fossil-fuel phase-out this decade, as well as a litany of loopholes that might enable the production and consumption of coal, oil and gas to continue), the time is now to create better, more inclusive and intersectional climate policy.  

This is an updated version of an article first published on the Green New Deal Group’s website. Nannette Youssef is the Runnymede Trust’s policy officer. For more information on the inquiry process, email appg-race@runnymedetrust.org

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Runnymede Trust.

Join the fight for racial justice: support the Runnymede Trust’s work by making a donation.

Photo: A banner at a climate protest in Cardiff in 2019 © iStock/Ceri Breeze

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