Why Black history is the blueprint to climate justice

Stories of empire, colonialism, slavery, and migration hold the truths to understanding the systems that brought us here.

by Athian Akec
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25 July 2022, 4:00pm

This article is part of a series by Athian Akec: Beyond Black History Month.

As the climate strike generation, we are living with the intense burden of bringing about climate justice; we protest, we petition, we vote, and we take direct action. But what is the blueprint for building the society we envision? Improving our collective understanding of Black history and how it has profoundly shaped the reality we are living in is key to realising that attempts to tackle the climate crisis will be futile unless tied into dismantling systems of economic, racial, and social injustice. 

Although the climate crisis is inherently a global issue, the disproportionate impact on Black working-class communities is an often overlooked but inescapable reality. In US cities like Baltimore, neighbourhoods that are poorer and have large Black and Hispanic populations can be 5 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit hotter in summer than wealthier, whiter parts of the city as a result of decades-long racist housing policies. In Madagascar, 400,000 people are on the brink of famine -- the first famine in modern history caused solely by global warming. In Fiji, rising sea levels have already caused entire towns to be relocated 1.5km inland, with the prospect of the whole nation being submerged by the end of the century.

Yet this disproportionality, as Black communities are hit harder and sooner by the climate crisis, is not something unique to the present day — it is visible throughout recent history. It is increasingly clear that we need to look to the past to understand the present and, in turn, to shape the future. We cannot wholeheartedly understand the environmental-societal impacts of the climate crisis without first observing it through the lens of Black history. 

Stories of empire, colonialism, slavery, and migration hold the truths to understanding the systems that brought us here, as well as the blueprints and schematics that will establish a future in which the health of the planet, and its most marginalised communities, are placed above the status quo — the relentless pursuit of profit. Between 1500 and 1900, the triangular Trans-Atlantic slave trade saw the forced migration of millions of people from West and Central Africa to North America and the Caribbean to labour on plantations. It is possible to link this triangular trade of manufactured goods, enslaved people, and raw materials with the rise of climate change, as the start of the industrial revolution coincided with the peak of the slave trade.

It is difficult to imagine that the systems of empire and colonialism that sparked and profited from the industrial revolution could have existed to the same extent without the hidden support network of the slave trade. In this way, the slave trade becomes the underappreciated driving force behind the mechanisation and urbanisation of western society, that in turn drove the start of increased carbon emissions and climate change. Yet whilst these historical Black communities suffered viscerally at the hands of systemic colonialism, it is these same systems that simultaneously increased the vulnerability of communities that, centuries later, would be worst affected.

Although examples of the tragic meeting point between racial inequality and climate catastrophe may fade from the centre of public consciousness, the impacts are still experienced today -- even if the news cycle has long since moved on. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, killing more than 1,800 people and causing $125 billion in damage. In the days and weeks following the hurricane's landfall, it quickly became evident that Black communities were disproportionately affected as a result of a lethal mix of political oversights, mismanagement, and long-term inequalities. Police officers tasked with evacuating the city were not seen as 'protectors' by communities in which distrust was inherent, as the racist US criminal justice system saw 1 in 4 citizens of some predominantly Black neighbourhoods arrested every year. This issue was compounded by false, racially-charged reports of snipers and looting, as the National Guard was deployed to protect property rather than life.

There were also clear disparities in the efficacy of evacuation efforts as the physical, technological, and economic mobility of Black communities was disproportionately limited — meaning that those that were most in need of evacuation had the least ability to do so. In 2000, 24% of Black households in the US did not own a vehicle, more than three times the proportion of white households. Access to information about the impending disaster was disproportionately limited, as many Black residents "didn't even own TV sets". 

Poor African American residents of New Orleans often lived just blocks away from the area in which they grew up, meaning that personal and social identities were tied to the physical communities where they lived -- making evacuation an unappealing prospect. The catastrophe was immortalised in popular culture as Kanye West infamously declared during a charity TV fundraiser that "George Bush doesn't care about black people". Later, Frank Ocean, raised in New Orleans, ruminated on forced Black migration in the emotionally intimate "Nights". "After 'trina hit I had to transfer campus / Your apartment, out in Houston's where I waited / Stayin' with you when I didn't have an address". It's important to consider how, in a media landscape that is often blind to how racism shapes our experiences of the climate crisis, the disproportionate racial impacts of Hurricane Katrina are not documented, remembered, and commemorated with the same fervour outside of Black culture. 

17 years after Katrina, the reality of these racially disproportionate impacts of the climate crisis are still ongoing, as predominantly Black, working-class communities in the US and UK are seeing a reduction in life expectancy from exposure to air pollution. Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, a nine-year-old Black girl from Lewisham, became the first person in the UK to have air pollution recognised as a cause of death. In such an affluent international city, Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah's death is a deeply tragic case study for a society that perhaps systemically fails to address how its marginalised citizens are affected by the climate crisis. Research done by the Office for the Mayor of London has shown that Black and other ethnic minority people are most likely to be exposed to toxic air pollution. This is paralleled in the experiences of Black working-class communities in the US, where the 97% Black and Hispanic neighbourhood Moth Haven in the Bronx, NYC, has been nicknamed "Asthma Alley" by residents. The area has one of the worst air qualities in the entire US, as research shows that Black Americans are exposed to about 56% more pollution than is caused by their consumption.

Exploitative resource extraction and long-term political instability have produced economic and agricultural systems that are less resilient to the challenges of the current-day climate crisis. Despite the fact that the West African region is globally the lowest contributor to climate emissions, temperatures are rising 1.5 times faster than the global average, which could force up to 32 million people to internally relocate as nations struggle to deal with the tangible realities of a warming planet. Meanwhile, the countries that benefited the most from the slave trade are now some of the most significant contributors to the climate crisis, all the while experiencing the fewest impacts -- a cruel cycle of inflicting pain and gaining profit. Something radical is needed to level the playing field. 

It's clear that the moment in human history we are living in places us at the crossroads of destruction, death, and despair or the possibility of a brighter, fairer, greener, and more just future in which we place tackling the climate crisis above the blind pursuit of profit. The recent IPCC report shows that irreversible climate disaster can just about be avoided if CO2 emissions peak before 2025 and reach net zero by 2050. There's a hint of light at the end of the tunnel, but the tunnel is collapsing around us. This mission requires us to educate ourselves about the perspectives of those around us, especially those whose voices are often marginalised. 

During any major transition in human history, such as the one needed to decarbonise the global economy, those who have the least typically pay the highest cost. In the early 1980s, the economic transition of deindustrialisation devastated working-class communities across the UK as Margaret Thatcher failed to implement a just transition, creating disparities still evident today. The Green New Deal programme of global investment in green infrastructure, jobs, and technology is what we need to answer this crisis. We have to recognise that this programme must work to redress and fix the inequalities embedded through colonialism, empire, and slavery that are faced by Black communities globally. We should turn to the stories of our heritage, the stories of indigenous cultures, and see how we can envision a future driven not by relentless expansion but by coexistence with the natural world.

The organisation Climate Reframed has compiled an extensive list of people of colour who are involved in various levels of the climate movement. Choked Up is a campaign group made up of Black and Brown teenagers from south London that is working to raise awareness and bring about solutions to air pollution in the city. Fatima Zahra Ibrahim, 27, is the co-chair of the organisation Green New Deal Rising, which is leading the fight for climate justice. We should amplify and uplift these voices. 

In inner-city London, I am surrounded by a resilient, beautiful community, but one that will face some of the harshest impacts of the climate crisis in the United Kingdom. In the homeland of my parents, my cousins will face drought, flooding, and the prospect of forced migration. It's time we organise to build an alternate future where tackling the climate crisis is a pathway to a future radically better than the one we can presently imagine. 

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Beyond Black History Month