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  • Ruby Ross

Intersectionality in the climate movement - why is climate activism so white?

The climate emergency has been at the forefront of activism, especially among young people, for the past few years. With the release of the 2018 UN Environment Report that said we have 12 years to change our ways, or the damage we have caused will be irreversible, and the emergence of inspiring figures such as Greta Thunberg, young people have become incredibly vocal around this area. The realisation that our future is being destroyed by the older generations who hold the power and refuse to change caused a huge movement that has already been the catalyst for a lot of positive change.

The Sixth Form that I attended has incredibly high levels of activism among students, especially surrounding environmental issues. A number of the organisers of the Youth Strikes for Climate in Bristol were students in my year, and a huge number of students attended them each month. However, I definitely saw a disparity in involvement between white people and People of Colour (POC). The diversity within the Sixth Form was definitely not reflected among the climate activists.

From my experience and perspective, climate activism is incredibly white. My friends who are organisers of movements such as the Youth Strikes and Extinction Rebellion also observe this trend. I find this to be an important issue with the movement, for a number of reasons.

1) This prevents POC from feeling they are included or valued within the struggle against climate change and environmental destruction. The lack of representation of black and minority ethnic activists among groups leading environmental activism at present may make these communities think this is not their issue, and they may feel uncomfortable getting involved because they feel unwelcome.

2) POC are the worst affected by climate change across the globe. However, many may feel they do not have the luxury of thinking about this issue, because they are already overloaded with trying to tackle issues of systemic racism.

3) We cannot have true climate justice without racial justice. These two issues are incredibly linked to one another. The ultimate goal of climate justice cannot be achieved without complete social justice. Both of these aims require an upheaval of the current capitalist system, as it is built on the foundations of systemic racism, sexism and environmental destruction.

As a white person myself, I have the privilege of never having to think about issues regarding my skin colour. This not only allows me to spend more time thinking about and researching other issues, such as the environment, but also to always feel I will be accepted into any area of activism. I can happily engage with movements such as the climate movement and not worry about feeling underrepresented or unwelcome, as well as engaging in activities such as striking from school without fear of being unfairly punished. However, I have recognised and feel uncomfortable with the fact that I am getting involved in tackling an issue that disproportionately affects my black peers far more than me, but does not have a good enough representation of these people within the groups taking the lead.

The fight for climate justice has definitely taken centre stage for the past few years, and has subsequently achieved a lot. However, the recent horrific death of George Floyd in police custody in the US has started a new wave of BLM activism. This stage of the movement feels very different from the past, in my opinion, for a number of reasons. Despite the fact that the media is gradually paying less and less attention to the issue, protests have been ongoing since May, and social media is remaining full of information on continuous examples of institutionalised racism in the US and UK, and how people can get involved. I feel that one of the major distinctions from the past is the current focus on white people taking more action and become actively ‘anti-racist’, rather than simply ‘not racist’. Recent events and attitudes towards them have proven that it is the responsibility of white people to take up the reigns and dismantle the system that our ancestors created, and we uphold. This is what, to me, makes this a revolution, and not a moment.

Rightly so, the climate movement has taken a back seat for a period, and issues of systemic and institutionalised racism have been in the spotlight. However, moving forwards, it is vital that people see the links between both these issues, and adapt the climate movement to address this more. This is what inspired me to write this article, and discuss this topic with young people, and get their opinions on both issues and what change they believe is needed. I spoke to a variety of young people involved in both BLM and climate activism.

Abe Awes: an 18 year old, Black/African British, Black Lives Matter and End FGM activist in Bristol.

Amina Birdi: a 15 year old, White and Indian, Extinction Rebellion Youth activist in Bristol.

Eddie Waller: an 18 year old, White British, Bristol Youth Strike 4 Climate and Extinction Rebellion Youth activist in Bristol.

Fern Jameson-Green: a 17 year old, White British, Bristol Youth Strike 4 Climate, Extinction Rebellion Youth, BLM and Stop HS2 activist in Bristol.

Grace Dobson: a 17 year old, Mixed White Black African, Extinction Rebellion Youth, BLM and Stop HS2 activist in Bristol.

Lily Fitzgibbon: an 18 year old, White British, Bristol Youth Strike 4 Climate organiser in Bristol.

Mya-Rose Craig, aka Birdgirl: an 18 year old, Mixed White South Asian, Founder of Black2Nature, Youth of Our Planet, Youth for Climate Change, and Ambassador for Survival International, Earthwatch Europe, The Sustainable Goals Centre, Summer Camps Trust, and Patron of Eco-Streamz, The Resilience and The Tony Trust, in Bristol and the wider UK.

Niang Mbaye-Samb: an 18 year old, Black African Spanish, Black Lives Matter activist in Bristol.

This is how they answered questions on BLM and climate topics:

Have you ever been taught about / are you aware of the links between racial justice and climate justice?

Abe: “No. Usually whenever I hear climate justice, I think of a middle class person who doesn’t like the fact there aren’t going to be any sea turtles in the next few years.”

Amina: “I haven’t been taught about it in school, which I think we should.”

Eddie: “Yes… I think that is why a lot of the time, politicians brush it aside, because it doesn't affect them personally. And maybe it is because they are privileged and white, whereas a lot of ethnic minorities are suffering a lot from climate change because they tend to be the first people to suffer.”

Grace: “I hear about it in passing, but it is not something I am really tuned in on and that I actively go to learn about, but I probably should!”

Lily: “I don’t think I was ever really taught about it… it is really something you have to seek out yourself.”

Birdgirl: “I am, but that's not something I was never taught really… Personally, I find it ridiculous that it isn’t talked about more, because there is such an intrinsic link between them. Like what I was talking about in my speech at the Climate Strike; the climate change movement, and others too, literally aren’t sustainable unless they are taking other social issues into account, like race and class.”

Niang: “I have been taught about racial justice and climate justice in school, but as separate matters. When I thought about it, I realised there are so many links that are involved in these two factors.”

Why do you feel both these issues are linked?

Abe: “Unfortunately, the way the world is, white countries are usually colder, so they benefit from a little bit of heating up. Like we can grow grapes now in the UK, when you wouldn’t normally be able to. Canada is said to benefit the most from climate change.”

Amina: “BAME people tend to be the most disadvantaged and live in areas where they are most vulnerable, even in developed countries, and experience a worse effect.”

Fern: “You can’t really have climate justice under capitalism, because it exploits people. And that is interlinked with racial justice, because you also can’t have racial equality under capitalism.”

Grace: “I do think they are definitely linked, because BAME people, especially those who are underprivileged, are going to be more affected by the climate crisis… whoever says they aren’t linked is either delusional or not clued in enough.”

Lily: “One of the poorest wards in Bristol, Lawrence Hill, is incredibly diverse and has the lowest level of car ownership in Bristol, but the highest level of air pollution. So these things all go hand in hand.”

Do you feel that the issues surrounding climate change are losing people's attention?

Amina: “I think they have been because of coronavirus… and then BLM being the main focus, which I definitely think is what should happen. I’m not saying that climate justice should always take the lead over BLM. But the issues are linked, and you can’t have racial justice without also having climate justice.”

Fern: “Yeah I think so, which is quite dangerous. But the BLM movement really does need its spotlight. But I think if everyone who supports the BLM movement can be educated on the links between climate justice and racial justice and social justice, then maybe it will become more important.”

Grace: “I think they have been slightly buried with coronavirus. But I think now we are definitely seeing a time for change, especially with the BLM movement. And I think climate is right on the tail of that… One is about trying to live equally in society, and the other one is trying to live, full stop.”

Lily: “Yeah, I would definitely agree. Whilst I think it is amazing what is happening with the Black Lives Matter movement at the moment, I feel like it would be so much more amazing if it was hand in hand with environmental justice.”

Birdgirl: “Yeah I think so at the moment… It's one of those things that if people do get very engaged with the issue and they are excited about it for short periods of time, it is something that is so enormous and intangible, that I think it is really difficult for people to try and deal with it long term, because it feels like it is too big.”

Have you previously been involved in environmental activism? If not, why?

Abe: “I don’t feel like I would be included in that sort of thing. When you watch people in London protesting, blocking streets, you will never see someone like me. It is always a very middle class person, who has time to take off from work, because they can probably work from home, and all that stuff.”

Niang: “I would like to say that I have been involved in environmental activism. I can see a difference between me compared to two or three years ago… But I have this thing where I feel that white people are more active when it comes to climate activism.”

Have you been getting involved in BLM activism?

Amina: “I went to the march in Bristol, and I have been posting on social media about it, and donating.”

Eddie: “Not particularly, no. I mean I know quite a bit already, but I haven’t been reading much on it. I have mainly just not really thought about it. Sometimes I listen to it on the radio or on the news, and maybe it is brought up in the occasional zoom meeting I have been involved in, but not that much on it, no.”

Fern: “Yeah definitely. I think I went to a BLM protest quite a few years ago. Obviously racial justice comes in and out of ‘fashion’, I hate to say it like that, but that is definitely what it is. Its trends, and people jumping on a bandwagon. Recently I have been quite vocal about it, and I am trying to continue that past the week of people caring, and then it fizzling out and people going to a rave in St Pauls.”

Grace: “I do go to a lot of the marches, I donate, I fill out petitions, I try to educate friends and family.”

Lily: “Not in the same way. I really wish that I had been, but I found that mentally I couldn’t cope with fighting more than one battle at a time… So I found that the best things I could do were talk to my family about diversity in their workplaces and conversations.”

Birdgirl: “I have been trying to do a lot of stuff online, trying to raise awareness and really starting difficult conversations, and making people think about their own relationships to race and racism and prejudice.”

Do you think that climate activism is predominantly white?

Amina: “Yes, at the moment it is. Especially if it is arrestable, because BAME people are at a greater risk of police brutality… I think XR is trying to work towards being more inclusive. They made a new statement on relations with the police to try and include people who are unfairly targeted by police.”

Eddie: “It has not been something I have really looked into or noticed, but yes, I think I can definitely see that the majority, maybe even 99%, of participants I see are white.”

Fern: “Yeah definitely. I am not going to name the organisation, but I know there is an organisation who had this one black activist who was sent to all their press events to make them look inclusive, which was bad. It definitely is predominantly white.”

Grace: “[White people] have the time, the excess income, the resources to glue themselves to buildings, or to go up to London for the week. Whereas [a higher percentage of] BAME people don’t, they don’t have the time, or the money… I think there is definitely white privilege within climate activism. However, I have seen a lot of white people use that privilege very, very well. So I wouldn’t say it is a racist thing, I would say it is a circumstantial thing.”

Lily: “Yes, 100%! It is so white!... It has always been our biggest criticism, but a really valid one.”

Birdgirl: “I think it definitely has that history of being a very white movement, which causes a few different issues. Firstly, I think there are definitely a lot of preconceptions on what an environmentalist looks like and what you need to be to get involved, which I think is still an issue with people not wanting to get involved… I think the issue now isn’t necessarily worldwide that there aren’t loads of people from different places getting involved, it is that their voices aren’t necessarily being amplified as much as people that would more traditionally be part of the movement.”

Niang: “I do believe that there are more white people that are worried about this matter. I might be wrong, and I might not know about other people who talk about the planet and the environment, but I know that the majority of people who I hang around with and talk about this are mostly white.”

Has this prevented you from getting more involved in this area?

Abe: “Yes. That has prevented me from getting involved. It's the same way that like Feminist Society [at my school] was predominantly white, which prevented lots of black people from getting involved.”

Grace: “It has not really ever been a factor for me because my mum is white, and my stepdad is white, so I have gotten used to being around a large group of white people. But I know friends who have wanted to get involved with XR, but sometimes, and even from my own experience, going into a room full of white people is quite intimidating, when you yourself are the only brown person.”

Birdgirl: “Even though I spent a lot of time outdoors[as a kid], I never thought anybody that looked like me did. I am half Bangladeshi, and all the people around me were white. I guess because I felt really privileged to be able to have those kinds of opportunities when I was younger, I wanted to give other people those opportunities”

Why do you think the climate movement has lacked intersectionality?

Amina: “I think people think it is a problem for the future… And people who have other issues, like racial justice, they seem more immediate.”

Eddie: “Possibly because there is a lack of outreach perhaps, to less privileged areas.”

Grace: “I think a lot of the time BAME people don’t want to get involved because they are like, if we do something and get arrested, I am going to be the one who suffers the most, because I am BAME. So I think in that aspect, there is a problem.”

Lily: “The thing we get told is that if you are from a less privileged community, it is harder to care about something that seems so distant at the moment. You are more likely to be concerned with things like what is affecting my community, or do I have enough food to put on the table?”

Birdgirl: “A lot of that, in my opinion, really comes down to who has the time and energy to be fighting in movements in their spare time. It is exhausting and really time consuming, and a lot of work. And most people are just working and trying to keep afloat, they don’t have the time. It's just not a priority.”

Niang: “I know all of these problems like gender inequality, racial inequality, climate change, are all equally as worrying, but I think that people are more attached to whatever matters to them personally the most. And I think that is the reason that climate activism attracts a majority select group of people.”

What do you think needs to change about the climate movement to make it feel more inclusive and intersectional?

Abe: “I don’t think I want it to change. I think black people need to make their own movement. I don’t think we will ever be included.”

Amina: “There definitely needs to be less focus on arrestable actions”

Fern: “I think the focus needs to be shifted from the west to the global south. And then push those activists to the forefront. Also instead of having Greta, who is amazing and has done a lot, instead of having her as the face of a movement, have the people who are actually already fighting climate change on the front lines in the global south… We talk about Bristol will be this far under water in this many years, but India already is.”

Grace: “I think a lot of the time it is about getting the BAME people they do have to the forefront. Because a lot of the time the advertisement, the photos, even just the posters you see up all around Bristol, they have white people on the front. So it is making it look like a white movement… I think a lot of organisations like XR, like Greenpeace, maybe need to have a campaign, like a ‘This is your movement’ campaign.”

Lily: “I think people do care, our methods just aren’t always able to reach them. The ability to actually be able to strike from school, for example, is such a white privilege, because students of colour get suspended so much more, and get punished so much harder for the same thing.”

Birdgirl: “I think there are a few different things… One thing that really has to change is this whole narrative about change and what is needed and what the priorities of the movement are, otherwise it is not going to be sustainable. I think also allowing the voices of minorities to be pushed to the front a bit more, and really amplified, instead of being pushed to the side because people don’t really want to hear what they have to say.”

Do you think that BLM and climate issues should remain separated or should come together, to an extent, as one fight for social and ecological justice?

Abe: “I think you have to look at it almost like a venn diagram. There are always going to be overlappings, and that is what BLM should be about, it should overlap with lots of other things, like climate change.”

Amina: “I think they should definitely come together, because that would make the climate movement a lot more inclusive, and we could make sure that instead of white people demanding justice for underrepresented people, we would be listening to marginalised communities more, and being able to include them in the change we need.”

Fern: “I think it is really important, especially with BLM, to have differentiation. I think to an extent they should come together, and maybe have joint campaigns and stuff like that… But racial discrimination against black people has been going on for 400 years, whereas climate change has only really been an issue at the forefront of our minds since the 1990s, when the first IPCC report came out. So I think there is a lot more history behind the Black Lives Matter movement, and I think we need to understand that and not hijack that.”

Grace: “I do believe they should remain separate, because they are two separate issues. A lot of the time, when BLM and another movement have come together, BLM is put to the back. And I do believe it is the BLM movement’s time to have its say and to be at the front.”

Lily: “I think they should come together more… There are so many parts where they overlap, talking about indigenous people again, and people getting in the way of their rights to land despite all the work they do, just being ignored and people placing pipelines through their land.”

Birdgirl: “Black Lives Matter is all about promoting a better quality of life for black people, and part of that is completely intertwined with environmental issues, and to say any differently would be a bit disingenuous. So many minority ethnic people all around the world are really suffering and dying from climate change and other environmental issues. I think maybe intertwining the movements, to an extent, could go a long way in raising awareness and promoting positive change.”

Niang: “I believe that they should come together. At the end of the day, we are all trying to fight for something. It's two birds with one stone thing. We are trying to fight together to destroy two things. So I think it would be a really good idea to come together.”

Birdgirl has already been making changes in this area, through founding her organisation, Black2Nature. This is what they do, in her own words:

“Black2Nature is all about diversifying the nature sector, and various environmental movements, like the climate change movement. Like I said, it came about because I am minority ethnic myself, and I wanted to see more diversity. We do a lot of campaigning in the nature sector and in the movement to promote change. We also do this grassroots project where we are bringing minority ethnic kids, mainly from inner city Bristol, and we are taking them out to the countryside for a weekend to give them that opportunity to connect with nature. We have run about 9 or 10 camps now, and we have worked with more than 200 kids.”

I also put some polls on my Instagram page to get a sense of what more people think about these issues. Obviously the answers were much shorter, but some were very interesting. The turnout was not always high, but here is a compilation of the most interesting findings:

Open questions:

Why do you think the climate movement is predominantly white?

  • “Maybe with the stuff like XR and arrests, as a white person we have the privilege to be arrested and not get an awful outcome.”

  • “It’s kinda the same with how feminism appears predominantly white, it’s the only kind of activism white people can fully relate to”

  • “Most pictures from protests are white people”

  • “Accessible for white people I guess, and we are privileged enough to have the capacity to care about the climate”

  • “Climate solutions are probably going to be detrimental economically in the short term, which is okay for white middle class people”

  • “I think this is how the media portrays it, kinda perpetuates the cycle of it being mostly white because then it maybe feels less inclusive for POC. Also this is an issue that white people are privileged to think about, and POC have more direct issues that they experience everyday e.g. racism”

  • “It’s a privileged to be able to protest without repercussions”

  • “I think that the actual effort put into the movement is likely equal BUT a higher representation of white activists because POC activists are simply looked over while white people are provided as the image”

  • “White people are always listened to more than any POC, take the picture where Vanessa Nakante was cropped out of when she was the only black activist”

  • “I don’t know, I don’t notice what the predominant race is to be fair”

  • “White people have less obstacles to overcome in life allowing them to take action”

How are climate justice and racial justice linked?

  • “Both injustices disproportionately affect those with less access to government influence”

  • “Solutions will negatively impact LEDC’s more so movement will widen racial inequality”

  • “I’m not that educated about it but the black community would be more affected by climate change”

  • “Climate related issues will likely affect the least privileged in our society first”

  • “Climate change affects poorer and less white areas first”

  • “Environmental racism - the poorer areas/countries where e.g. air pollution is worse/where the rubbish gets dumped are primarily POC countries”

  • “Studies link areas of large BAME population coinciding with polluted areas”

  • “Mostly white men in power tend to tackle climate change as though ‘we are all in this together’ when it should be the top 10% taking accountability for creating most of the worlds pollution instead of shifting the blame”

  • “There is often a link between peoples race and their wealth and climate change effects people with less money more than those who are more affluent”

How can the climate movement change to be more inclusive?

  • “Listen to more indigienous voices that have been damaged by capitalism”

  • “Share more instances of POC activists instead of solely focussing on white ones, acknowledging where POC communities have had environmental challenges and sharing them so more people can understand why racism and climate activism are interlinked”

  • “Consider the experience of w/c and minorities and what’s accessible to them when criticising diet or purchase habits etc. Also making them feel heard and like the movement is for them too (which I guess is done by thinking about what's the experience of the w/c and minorities)”

  • “Actively support the ideology that climate justice + racial justice are the same”

  • “Equally promote all activists, bring more light to how climate change is worsened by racism”

  • “Bring in more BLM speakers at protests”

  • “Give more time in the spotlight to POC campaigners and their stories”

I hope that if you are reading this, the answers given have made you consider what your opinion is, and what needs to be done in the future to adapt the climate movement to make sure it is inclusive. If you feel that large environmental groups and organisations are not prioritising the need for intersectionality enough, then call them out, contact the organisers, have your voice heard. If you are a white person, especially, use your privilege to amplify the voices of others and fight for their rights. We need to be the change we want to see.

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