racism is the root cause of our climate crisis
Jamie Margolin, co-founder of the youth-led climate crisis fighting organisation Zero Hour, breaks down the importance of understanding this, so we can avoid making the same mistakes.
The climate crisis is not a new monster. It is not an issue that popped out of nowhere, it is not a new evil. In fact, it is actually the grand culmination of institutional, societal evils that have been building for centuries. In order for us to solve the climate crisis, we have to understand the true roots of the issue. If we don’t understand where the climate crisis really originated then we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes. If we try to solve the climate crisis within the same frameworks and systems that caused it, it won’t work.
So in order to save ourselves, let’s take a step back and learn how we got into this situation of climate breakdown. Many people pin the start of the climate crisis to the industrial revolution. That was when we started digging for coal, mining fossil fuels out of the ground, and burning them. But it actually started long before that, with colonisation. Settlers destroyed natural habitats, hunted species to death and brought in invasive plant species that indigenous people and slaves were forced to grow. With colonialism came the extreme extraction of the earths resources, and the genocide and silencing of the indigenous wisdom of the peoples that have been keeping this earth alive for centuries. With colonialism came the idea that everything on Earth is for our use, and that everything is to be bought and sold. It enforced the idea that nothing was sacred or priceless. And this mindset is the core of how we got to the climate disaster. Everything has a price tag slapped on it. Even air and water.
Before the first coal was mined, even before the first factories were opened, the seeds for the climate crisis had already been planted. And the colonialism that caused the climate crisis is still playing out today. For example, former colonised countries emit the least amount of carbon dioxide, but feel the worst effects of the climate crisis. And even though countries in the Global South like India emit large amount of pollutants, it’s because the United States ships our factory work overseas so poor people of colour can do our dirty work. American corporations save money exploiting workers in India and polluting their air, water and people. While poor communities are suffer, rich communities in developed countries buy those products without having to feel the toxic effects of producing them. It’s the same colonial system of forcing people of colour to produce and pay the price for luxuries for those in rich white countries. Colonialism never went away, it just evolved.
And then, there’s the next system of oppression that is very much intertwined with colonialism -- racism. There is compelling evidence that increasing social inequality is linked to environmental degradation, and that the health of people of colour and those living in poverty is negatively impacted by being exposed to higher levels of environmental pollution than their white counterparts or people not in poverty.The vast majority of fossil fuel projects and energy extraction sites are built in low-income communities, immigrant communities and communities of colour. Why? Because these people are already victims of the racist system of oppression, and governments and corporations exploit their powerlessness.
The extreme weather events that result from climate change have devastating consequences for communities of colour and low-income communities. In the aftermath of ecological disasters, efforts to rebuild are often inadequate compared to those made to rebuild higher-income and white communities. The most powerful example of this inequity is visible in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Black homeowners received $8,000 less per family in government aid than white homeowners due to disparities in housing values. In 2013, about 80 percent of the mostly black residents of the city’s Lower 9th Ward had not returned to their community due to inadequate recovery and rebuilding efforts by the government.
This is not a coincidence. Because people of color and immigrants are already victims of racism, they are more vulnerable to corporations targeting them. Take for example, the Dakota Access Pipeline: a fossil fuel pipeline designed to transport up to half a million barrels of crude oil daily from North Dakota to Illinois. The construction of the pipeline was originally going to be built through a majority white, non-indigenous community, but when that community rejected it in the interests of protecting their water and health of their citizens, it was rerouted to instead be built on indigenous land. And even though there was a large pushback against the construction of the pipeline on this indigenous land, their outcry was ultimately not respected and the pipeline was built anyway. If that’s not environmental racism, I don’t know what is.
This is how systems of oppression intertwine with the climate crisis. People of colour, women, poor people, disabled people, those in the global south, homeless people -- everyone who is already oppressed and vulnerable -- are disproportionately affected by the climate crisis. And those same systems of oppression also helped cause the climate crisis. Climate change on its own seems like a huge insurmountable problem. Factor in the full story and this problem is even bigger. In order to save our lives, futures, the planet and everything we hold dear, change needs to happen on a much bigger scale than we initially thought.
Climate change demands much bigger and harder solutions than we initially thought. The media, our leaders, businesses, and global corporations need to address climate change not as a stand-alone issue floating separately from everything else, but as the grand culmination of societal injustices that have been building up for centuries.
The climate crisis is not a new monster -- it is all the problems with our extractive colonial racist capitalist system coming together into one big supervillain. So if we want to survive this thing, we’re going to have to dig deep and get to the roots. We have centuries of damage to undo, so it’s time to get started.