Climate change, racism, and black lives

Of course climate change is about race.

Roger Hallam
27 September 2016
BLM protest.jpg

By Fibonacci Blue from Minnesota, USA - Black Lives Matter protest against St. Paul police brutality, CC BY 2.0,

This month marked a historic shift in the way climate change is communicated. Black Lives Matter (BLMUK) blocked City Airport in London to highlight that the climate crisis is a racist crisis. With half a million plus views on YouTube and interviews on BBC, the action has led to a torment of indignation, rage, mixed with the usual blatant racist abuse on the YouTube and Guardian comments threads. Even “progressive left” voices seem to have deemed that mixing climate and race is inappropriate, confusing, and counterproductive. I want to argue the exact opposite.

First it is necessary be clear about the science on climate change. Most people including many left activists seem to still subscribe to the notion that climate change is some vague threat that is going to happen at some point in the distant future. As one well regarded young activist friend put it “at least I will be dead by then”.

Aside from the dubious ethics of such an attitude is it also plain wrong. The science has made great strides in the last ten years on “abrupt” climate change and cautious predictions of distant impacts are crashing to the ground as new data comes in. For example the rather comforting prediction that the Arctic ice cap won’t melt till around 2100 is now challenged by many experts, who argue that summer sea-ice may be gone from the Arctic within the next ten years – and around two thirds of summer sea ice has disappeared in just 36 years. At this point the most basic physics will kick in. With no ice to keep the Arctic Ocean cool, it will warm rapidly (latent heat effect) triggering even more rapid melting of the Greenland ice cap which lost and 2,700 billion tonnes of ice between 2003 and 2013. If we allow Greenland’s whole ice-cap to go, it will raise sea levels by around six metres, flooding most of the world’s major cities.

The loss of white ice cover reflecting the sun’s rays back into space (albedo effect) will trigger further temperature increases. Add this to the temperature increases still to be fed into the system from already released CO2, and we quickly see that the Paris agreement was a massive act of self delusion. And this is before we factor in the exponential growth of forest fires, storms, and draughts not to mention the methane bomb (look it up). It is clear we have are facing an existential crisis here and now – today.

Except of course that “we” hides an important detail. The first people to suffer are the predominately black and brown skinned people of the global south. As Kevin Anderson, top climate change expert, succinctly puts it – if we are to have any hope of avoiding the 2C temperature rise and the catastrophic effects this will have on these most vulnerable global populations, the western industrialised countries have to drastically cut carbon emissions by over 10% a year for the next ten years. In other words we will have blown the target out of the water just through the global emissions of the global rich even before the global south has had any significantly affect on emissions levels. This is the brutal maths which we are presented with. These are the cold hard facts.

The political implications of this situation are explosive. In the next five years the actions of predominately rich white people will cause the deaths of millions of poor black people who have no responsibility for this crisis. The average American's annual carbon footprint – 20.4 tons – is around 2,000 times that of someone living in the African nation of Chad.

The refusal to cut emissions constitutes an act of imperialist aggression against the former colonised parts of the world.

Instead of grading land and gold, this time round it is grabbing of carbon budgets. Instead of slaughter by the gun, this time it is the destruction of their climate. And why? Because, as in the past so today, black lives don’t matter.

The question of Intent.

Much of the uproar about the idea that the climate crisis is a racist crisis is because people are convinced that they do not hate black people and therefore cannot be racist. They do not intend to cause harm and therefore cannot be held responsible. Such a position shows a complete lack of understanding of the nature of oppression. Most political violence is not committed because of conscious hate but rather because of the opposite – the victim is invisible and therefore the act of violence is invisible.

In the film “the Help” the white womens’ self-understanding was that they were decent upstanding members of their community. They simply could not understand that their actions were insulting and humiliating because they had never been challenged on their privilege. As psychological research shows normal “decent” people are quite capable of participating in violence – what Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil”. Similarly the global political system that maintains white power at the expense of black genocide has never been challenged to face its violence. When it does, all hell will break loose because the spell is broken, the crime exposed. The emperor is suddenly seen as naked. We saw a foretaste of this in the comment threads this month.

It is therefore a no brainer that this crisis is a racist crisis because a total disregard for black lives has been and continues to be an integral part of the structure of extortion and violence that have characterised the global system for the past three centuries. The reframing of climate change as an act of extreme racist violence promises to at last bring home to the public and the powers that be that the game is up. This is not an “environmental” crisis – to be slotted into the “climate science” bracket on news programmes – any more than Pinochet’s atrocities belong to the “human biology” bracket. The climate is simply the conduit through which the violence of one group is enacted upon another, through the justification that the lives of the latter “don’t matter”. Continued discussions of the mechanics of climatic processes are now the moral irrelevant of questions about the electromagnetic forces in play when electrocuting a dissenter’s genitals.

This is not a hopeless situation. What needs to happen is very clear and doable – a systematic move to drastically reduce emissions by key Western States in the next five years starting now. If we claim that “black lives matter” – indeed if we believe human life itself matters – then we need to grow up, look the situation squarely the face, and start taking personal responsibility for making this death cult system we live in wake up and take notice. The action this month is the start of a sea change in climate activism. As in previous times of extreme moral and political crisis, direct action on a massive scale is now needed. As the great political philosopher John Locke states – when a state threatens the life and property of the people, rebellion is not only justified but a duty. Groups like Reclaim the Power are organising mass actions such as one at an UK airport on 1st October (details here). From now on inaction will destroy not only the prospects for the next generation but also any sense of moral self-worth and integrity. The situation is the situation. There are no cost free options any more.

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData