I’m writing this from St Paul, Minnesota. Our neighbouring city, Minneapolis, is descending into riots this evening. I can hear the fireworks and tear gas grenades being fired at protestors five miles away. They are outraged at the police killing of an unarmed black man, George Floyd. Floyd was killed by a white police officer who knelt on his neck for at least seven minutes while he was handcuffed and face down on the ground. Floyd repeatedly said, “I cannot breathe. I cannot breathe.” The same rainstorm that is falling on the burning buildings across the river is falling on the garden I planted with my preschoolers earlier today.
This day has been hundreds of years in the making.
The outrage in Minneapolis right now is primarily about inequality. Since the early days of this city, it has been divided along racial lines, beginning with the expulsion and extermination of the Anishinaabe people, whose land we still occupy. A hundred years ago, in the aftermath of the Great Depression, banks and city officials maintained a racist system of redlining, and created entire neighbourhoods where housing and businesses could not apply for loans and where poverty persists today. Schools in Minnesota, where Minneapolis is the largest city, have among the worst achievement gaps for kids of colour in the entire country.
Climate change is racist because the system that caused it is racist. No, rainstorms don’t care about skin colour, but worsening weather worldwide aggravates the divisions in society that already exist because it hits people of colour living in poverty the hardest. Simply put: the reason the world hasn’t been fighting climate change as hard as it should is because powerful people don’t want to stop exploiting people of colour. The urgency of climate change is also an urgency for racial justice.
Black Americans were brought to this country as slaves four hundred years ago and have been dying in disproportionate numbers ever since. Black Americans have borne the brunt of the fossil fuel era, dying from air pollution, cancer from exposure to toxic chemicals, and severe weather at greater rates than the national average. And the system works to maintain this inequality. Black Americans are killed by police at more than twice the rate of white Americans. Black Americans have died at more than twice the rate as white Americans from the coronavirus pandemic.
The social and economic system we have is not designed to be fair. It was created to extract value from the natural world for specific groups of people. It’s why Christian Cooper, a black birdwatcher in Central Park, was perceived as a threat. Its burdens fall unequally: Black, Brown, Indigenous women and men, and marginalised groups of all kinds pay with their lives for the continued comfort of people in power. People like me – white, privileged, cisgendered, male – have engineered this system to benefit them. It’s working exactly as intended.
Climate change is a symptom of the same unequal system. It is the denial of the right to exist on an enormous, planetary scale. It is a consequence of the same system run by people who think of Africa as a resource for imperialist expansion, not a continent filled with millions of families who deserve health and safety and happiness just like everyone does. It’s what happens when the lives of marginalised people and non-human species are viewed as expendable. That expendability, and the continuation of this system, is a choice. Nothing about it is inevitable or necessary, yet those in power choose to continue it every single day.
These truths might be uncomfortable to read, but it’s more uncomfortable to watch your loved one die on the street with a knee to the throat.
Here’s the good news on climate this week
The answer to all of this obviously isn’t easy, but the approach must include anti-racism at its core. Anti-racism, actively working to replace the current system with something that repairs past harms and redistributes power meaningfully in favour of people of colour is what is required of everyone in the climate emergency, especially those of us who benefit the most from how things are right now. We cannot fight climate change without being anti-racist.
The good news is that each one of us have the power to insist on changing racist laws and institutions. As climate advocates, it’s all the more important.