Indigenous people and Black femmes should lead the climate conversation

Yessenia Funes explains why the climate change denying acts of white billionaires are affecting Indigenous, Black, trans and queer people the most.

by Yessenia Funes
14 June 2022, 4:16pm

This story originally appeared in i-D’s The Earthrise Issue, no. 368, Summer 2022. Order your copy here.

A lot about climate change remains uncertain. How hot will the Earth become? What species will go extinct? How many glaciers will melt at our poles? What we do know is that the answers to these questions will determine the fate of our planet – but that doesn’t mean we’ll all feel it the same. The power-hungry will gorge on disaster for political or financial gain. The white wealthy elite will carry on living a life of luxury out of reach of most. The working class will drown under the sea of debt and devastation that a rapidly heating planet brings when it destroys your home or harms your loved ones.

This is climate injustice: the fact that people whose recklessness and denial created this mess will be fine while the global majority suffers. Earlier this year, as part of its sixth assessment report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – an independent body of scientists known as the IPCC, that reviews the latest climate research to guide policymakers – listed colonialism not only as a driver of the climate crisis but also as an ongoing issue that is exacerbating communities’ vulnerability to it. Africa, for instance, is among one of the regions most susceptible to the impact of climate change, yet it makes up the smallest share of global greenhouse gas emissions. The people of this continent are already living through carbon fueled heat waves and droughts, with cyclones projected to increase. Meanwhile, many still lack access to electricity, the main contributor to global emissions.

“We see leaders bring questions to white tech billionaires when Indigenous matriarchs and Black femmes have the answers."

Then again, what should we expect from a world built on colonialism and capitalism? From civilisations that run on exploitation and exclusion? We live in societies where the ultra-rich exist because of the ultra-poor, where most CEOs treat the Earth the same way they treat their employees. The climate crisis is a human rights crisis. However, its severity level offers us an opportunity to completely reimagine the daily rituals of life.

As leaders race to stabilise the planet, they can simultaneously eliminate the perverse inequality that oppresses hundreds of millions globally. They can create green jobs and regulate polluters. They can protect rainforests and build more urban parks. All this would not only cut emissions; it would also boost public health and biodiversity. Imagine the rewards. We must shift our perspective to be happier with less while demanding that everyone has more than enough. This is climate justice.

Humans once lived quite differently. There was a time when the rivers ran clean – a time before smokestacks billowed into the horizon. We didn’t always rely on grocery stores for our next meal. We had the land. Everything changed when some humans ventured out in search of abundance, but, instead found seeded scarcity.

When European forces arrived in the Americas during the 15th century, rapid deforestation and ecological disaster followed. Scientists have discovered that more than half of the lizard and snake species on Guadalupe went extinct after colonisation. Then, the Industrial Revolution added another level of environmental degradation as coal-fired power plants began to pollute the air and water.

Throughout all this, many communities were hurt. The Indigenous people already living in North America lost nearly all their land to colonisation while barely holding onto their culture. African empires became European colonies, and it didn’t take long for Black bodies to become commodities. The U.S. still hasn’t reconciled with its legacy of slavery, which created immense wealth for the U.S. and left descendants of enslaved people with centuries of trauma.

The existence of Black and Indigenous people today is a testament to their spirit. Again, their survival is threatened. Again, greed is to blame. Fossil fuel companies and their government allies continue to pollute in the same ways that have already heated the planet by about 1.1 degrees Celsius. They continue to abandon the same communities whose labour and loss fuelled their rise in the first place.

“Nearly half of the Amazon’s intact forest sits on Indigenous territories. That’s not a coincidence.”

In response to the climate crisis, that must all change. World leaders can finally repair centuries of abuse by centering Black, Indigenous, and other people of colour in their efforts to decarbonise societies. For too long, the voices of white people have dominated, silencing everyone else.

Remember when the Associated Press published a photo of white youth climate activists, including Greta Thunberg, but cropped out Vanessa Nakate, who is Ugandan but equally as important? Today, we see leaders bring questions to white tech billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos when Indigenous matriarchs and Black femmes have the answers – because, after all, their communities are the ones already living through climate calamity.

Solving climate change requires more than cutting emissions. It requires a culture shift that connects us more deeply with nature so that humans can stop exploiting it. It demands an evolution of our economy to incentivise protecting ecosystems rather than destroying them. It asks us to listen to the people who have lived in harmony with the land.

For millennia, many Indigenous communities and tribal nations let the Earth guide them. Many Indigenous cultures don’t see natural resources as resources at all – they see the mountains and streams and bison as kin. In the American Pacific Northwest, the Lummi Nation considers the endangered orcas that swim in the coastal waters as relatives. In Australia, the Yuin Nation historically set the land on fire themselves to prevent it from incinerating en masse as we saw during the country’s unprecedented 2019-2020 bushfire season.

Research has found that many Indigenous communities today still carry these practices and worldviews. The United Nations concluded in a 2021 report that deforestation is lower on Indigenous and tribal-managed lands. That results in up to 59.7 million metric tons of carbon stored. In the Bolivian, Colombian, and Brazilian Amazon, the forest saw a half to a third of the deforestation of similar forest ecosystems not managed by Indigenous people. Nearly a half of the Amazon’s intact forest sits on Indigenous territories. That’s not a coincidence.

If we fail to learn from the past, the consequences will be devastating. Our future can go a few different ways, but it depends on how urgently world leaders rush to cut their emissions and how much the people push them. Either way, things will look a lot different by the end of the century. Even an optimistic global temperature increase of two degrees Celsius would make extreme heat events that used to occur once every 50 years almost fourteen times more likely. The sort of droughts that used to happen once every ten years would become almost two and a half times more likely. Nothing good can come out of that.

“The cumulative scientific evidence is unequivocal: Climate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health,” a report from the IPCC reads. It doesn’t hold back on identifying who will most suffer from these impacts. Many African countries will feel extreme heat long before countries in the North do: their tropical cyclones are projected to become more intense. Already, the continent’s economic growth has been hit. Meanwhile, income inequality has worsened.

In the U.S., Black people bear a disproportionate burden, too. Segregation has resulted in Black neighbourhoods with fewer trees and more concrete – neighbourhoods that grow hotter when summer rolls around. If you look at U.S. state prisons, Black Americans are incarcerated at nearly five times the rate of their white peers; climate change is especially brutal for Americans behind bars. Air conditioning can be a luxury; as can evacuation during a hurricane. This threat becomes exacerbated for incarcerated trans people who are simultaneously combatting a toxic gender binary that assaults them simply for living.

In fact, queer people more generally are an especially vulnerable group of people to climate change. When disasters strike, government resources are less likely to recognise a homosexual couple seeking benefits or a trans woman whose face doesn’t match her ID. Plus, many members of the LGBTQIA+ community have a chosen family that’s not biological, which federal services don’t consider legitimate.

Many people already live under a veil of discrimination and oppression. The climate crisis will worsen this – experts refer to it as a threat multiplier. Through the lens of climate justice, leaders can take steps to heal the planet from its past while finally improving the lives of the people living on it: we’re finally seeing inklings of what that can look like.

In Australia, more than 395,000 acres of land have been returned to the Eastern Kuku Yalanji people, including the Daintree National Park, a world heritage site. The U.S. finally cancelled the notorious Keystone XL pipeline after a decade of Indigenous leaders rising up to stop it. Costa Rica is almost entirely dependent on renewable electricity to run its grid, giving us a glimpse of what’s possible when we’re willing to dream, when we’re willing to imagine. Ultimately, that’s what building a new world will take: radical imagination.

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