Confronting Injustice: Racism and the Environmental Emergency

Written by:
Alba Kapoor, Nannette Youssef and Simon Hood
Read time:
40 minutes

Confronting Injustice: Racism and the Environmental Emergency

We've partnered with Greenpeace UK to remind the world of something that should be glaringly obvious: the climate crisis is rooted in systemic racism.

People of colour across the globe bear the brunt of an environmental emergency that, for the most part, they did not create. Yet their struggles have repeatedly been ignored by those in positions of power. Global governance systems, including international climate negotiations, have for decades failed to act to protect the lives of people of colour.

To truly tackle the huge, converging crises and injustices we face, it has never been more important to understand the links between the environmental emergency and systemic racism. 

This is why we've teamed up with Greenpeace UK to produce this report. We have gathered evidence to show racial inequalities at the heart of the environmental emergency, which has its roots in colonialism, slavery and the plundering of resources in the global South. We show the UK’s historical and ongoing role in this.

Looking at what has happened in Nigeria, Brazil, Turkey and Senegal we show how global extractive economies - with their links to the UK - have caused huge damage to the lives and livelihoods of people of colour, and the role that racism has in the marginalisation of those communities. 

Closer to home, we demonstrate how environmental harm in the UK is concentrated in more deprived areas, and also disproportionately impacts people of colour in working class communities.

Over the last century and a half, the global North has been responsible for over 90% of all emissions while pocketing most of the profits from the fossil fuel-powered economy. Today, the average person in the UK emits more carbon in two weeks than a resident of Malawi, Ethiopia, Uganda, Madagascar, Guinea or Burkina Faso does in a whole year. At the same time, nearly all the countries most affected by extreme weather like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Mozambique and Zimbabwe are in the global South. 

The communities that have contributed the least to the environmental emergency are paying the heaviest price.

Today’s environmental injustices are the result of centuries of exploitation and violence inflicted on people of colour, particularly in the global South. The British Empire, and the corporations it sponsored, raked in enormous riches from slavery, cheap labour and the plunder of raw materials worth trillions of dollars. Thanks to technological advances and colonial oppression, rich countries have squeezed huge profits out of the fossil fuel economy, setting us on a path of dependence on fossil fuels and causing much of the associated emissions, leaving the global South poorer and more exposed to the environmental emergency as a result.  

Centuries of exploitation have tilted the world’s playing field against the global South, draining resources and political power away from it and leaving its people more exposed to environmental harm.

This exploitation isn’t buried in the history books. Its legacy lives on in the oil-soaked disaster zones left behind by western oil giants in West Africa like Shell, in the torrents of plastic waste flowing from the UK to countries like Turkey, or in the corporations destroying Indigenous People’s land in Brazil to make products that line UK supermarket shelves. Even so-called climate ‘solutions’ like carbon offsetting, where some of the world’s biggest polluters use land in the global South to cancel out emissions predominantly coming from the global North, aren’t much more than colonial practices repackaged for the 21st century.

Lesser known are the hugely unequal impacts of the environmental emergency on people of colour closer to home

Right now, as we go through the worst cost of living crisis in 50 years, it’s people of colour in the UK who are over 50% more likely to be in fuel poverty than their white neighbours, whilst companies established through the colonial period like BP and Shell announce eye-watering profits.

People of colour in the UK are also more likely to live in economically deprived, urban areas, close to incinerators and with less access to green space and gardens. In our cities, people of colour are more likely to breathe illegal levels of air pollution. This is the outcome of systemic racism and the environmental emergency in today’s Britain. Whilst wealthier, whiter communities can escape the impacts of the environmental emergency, our multi-ethnic working class cannot.

This report shows how a disregard for the lives and livelihoods of people of colour by the world’s most powerful companies and governments is at the heart of the environmental emergency. It demonstrates how the only way forward is to secure racial justice alongside environmental justice. They are two sides of the same coin - we can’t achieve one without also achieving the other.

This means:

  1. Calling out the most responsible and reparations. Those most responsible for the environmental emergency must be held accountable and pay their fair share of the loss and damage caused. Immediately this means that vulnerable countries are provided with the finance already promised by developed countries for loss and damage caused by climate impacts, as well as support for adaptation. The next major climate summit - the COP27 hosted by Egypt - will be the key moment to make this happen. There’s also the need for swift reparations, mainly from European countries and the United States towards South American, African and Asian countries because of the history of colonisation and exploitation, which has left many of these regions in a state of vulnerability.
  2. Shifting power and wealth. When it comes to money, technology and political power, centuries of exploitation have tilted the global playing field against Indigenous Peoples and communities of colour. This is why shifting power and wealth to these countries is absolutely key to tackling environmental injustice. Practical ways to achieve this include debt cancellation, reforms to international institutions, taxation that makes polluters pay, enactment of land-rights and the patent-free sharing of green technologies with the global South.
  3. Supporting a just transition to a sustainable future. We need to move away from a wasteful economy that treats people and nature like resources to be mined for profit, to one that’s grounded in restoring nature and allowing people to thrive. Space for new thinking is needed around alternative ideas to promote progress that is based on the collective well-being of both humans and nature. A just transition away from the unfair, extractive economy that dominate our society will not just tackle the impacts of the environmental emergency, but will also start to address the hugely disproportionate injustices facing low income communities and people of colour.

Commenting on the report, Dr Halima Begum, our CEO said:

“This report, by two leading organisations in their respective sectors, reminds the world of something that should be glaringly obvious: the climate crisis is also a racial crisis. Speaking as someone from one of the sacrifice zones identified in the report, whose father’s village in Bangladesh remains underwater due to the increasing devastation wrought by climate change, this report confirms that we cannot overcome the environmental emergency faced by the entire planet without addressing patterns of global racial disparity. This is absolutely implicit to achieving racial justice worldwide.
We now need dedicated and determined action across all sectors to recognise these shared and interlinked struggles. For this generation and every generation that follows, governments and corporations must stop prevaricating and legislating for the short term. Immediate action is required to implement the urgent changes that will address the climate crisis for the citizens of every country on the planet, while there is still time.”

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