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Does the climate movement have a diversity problem?

Environmental organisations and activists say that people of colour are seriously under-represented in the climate movement.
Image: Unsplash/Marcus Spiske

People of colour are disproportionately impacted by climate change both in the UK and around the world. In 2015, four of the 10 countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change were in Africa, according to the African Development Bank Group. By 2018, that number had risen to seven of the ten countries most vulnerable.

According to the United Nations Human Rights Council, by 2050 there will be 200 million climate refugees, the majority of which will come from the Global South. 

These are people who have been displaced from their homes as a result of natural disasters such as extreme weather conditions, droughts and air pollution.

“All around the world people of colour find themselves at the sharp end of environmental crises they have often done the least to cause,” Meena Rajput, the head of diversity & inclusion at Greenpeace UK, told The Big Issue.

“Whether it’s black and brown people being exposed to toxic air pollution in cities like London or people in the Global South being hit hardest by extreme weather, there’s no equality when it comes to the impact of environmental harm.

“And yet the mainstream climate movement has been slow to acknowledge and expose these links. It should be clear to everyone by now that this needs to change.”

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In the UK, parts of London that have a high percentage of people of colour are also more likely to experience the effects of air pollution than areas with a high percentage of white people. 

Choked Up is an organisation of black and brown teen activists who are working to tackle the disproportionate impact that air pollution has on people of colour in the UK.

“The climate movement has a very real diversity problem,” Anjali Raman-Middleton, co-founder of Choked Up, told The Big Issue.

“The loudest voices of this movement tend to be white and it often feels inaccessible to people of colour. Environmental issues disproportionately affect people of colour worldwide and it is our voices that need to be centred.”

Climate activism is the front line in protecting our planet from environmental destruction and can give a voice to younger generations who might be feeling overwhelmed by the current environmental situation and want to take action. 

But Anjali is not alone in voicing these growing concerns the climate movement is becoming too ‘white and middle-class’ and that it does not represent enough people of colour.

Ishaa Asim, a member of Youth Strike MCR and Fridays for Future, also says that people of colour are seriously lacking in representation in the climate movement.

“Climate activism is seen as a white middle-class movement and many activists of colour aren’t recognised, despite the fact that they are often working as hard if not harder than their white counterparts,” she said.

Being a climate activist in the UK is a privilege, she said, and in other countries it can be much more difficult to have your voice heard. 

“Many people become activists because the environment in their country is at such a breaking point that action and speaking out is so necessary. We are fortunate to live in a first-world country which has resources and therefore gives us a privilege over other activists.”

That privilege extends to the nature of protest, as well. Many environmental organisations such as Extinction Rebellion — often stylised as XR — make a point of organising  large protests and acts of civil disobedience that result in arrests.

But activists from the BAME community have said that getting arrested is not a viable option given the history of systematic racism and police brutality in the UK.

Ishaa Asim thinks that the reason  XR uses such tactics is to attract public attention to the seriousness of the climate crisis.

But she also says that “race has a massive impact on the movement” and that the actions of people of colour are often perceived differently to white activists. 

“Would I be in XR or take more action if I was white? I’ll never know as I’ve always been non-white, and part of that in activism is knowing my actions will be perceived differently to my white counterparts. How I act at protests or rallies can be construed differently depending on the media and the public mood.”

Nuala Gathercole Lam, a spokesperson from XR told The Big Issue: “We recognise that the climate and ecological crisis is playing out along the existing fault lines of inequality, here in the UK and globally.

“In Extinction Rebellion UK, we believe in peacefully doing whatever it takes by means of nonviolent direct action to raise awareness about the Climate and Ecological Emergency, which includes high-risk actions resulting in arrest.

“However, presenting the experience of arrest and jail time as something straightforward rather than acknowledging the stressful, intimidating and sometimes deadly experience marginalised people face at the hands of the police has been a mistake.”

The COP-26 climate change conference scheduled to take place in November this year will bring together countries around the world to discuss environmental policy. 

However, while Alok Sharma — a Conservative Cabinet minister with Indian heritage — is President of the summit, there are very few other people of colour who are occupying senior roles in the UK host team. There are also almost no women of colour in leadership positions. 

Ishaa Asim said she “would not be surprised” if the COP-26 conference was “majoritively white”.

“I am hoping that they will have a broad range of speakers and activists to share stories and discuss climate issues so everyone will be represented.”