IMPACT

We Don't Have To Halt Climate Action To Fight Racism

It's time to stop #AllLivesMattering the climate crisis

Late last month, the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer lit a tinderbox of outrage that has been simmering for months, years, generations. That outrage has pulled Americans out of social isolation and into the streets in all 50 states, and inspired protests around the world. They show no sign of stopping. In fact, they show every sign of winning. 

This is different. This is big. And it’s everywhere.  

Even in the climate movement — which has long stuck to the sidelines in moments like this — advocates and organizations are publicly declaring that Black Lives Matter. They are finally standing up and speaking out in defense of Black people’s right to breathe. It’s about damn time.

There’s just one problem: This new commitment to Black people often seems to come with an assumption that the fight for climate justice has to halt. As a “Climate Person,” my social media feeds are awash in calls to pause climate activism for the sake of supporting Black people, as though the two are mutually exclusive. As a Black Climate Person, I can’t tell you how disorienting that is.

There used to be a myth in environmental circles that Black people don’t care about the environment or about climate issues. There’s a lot of data to prove that that’s not true. But I don’t need that data, because I’ve been around Black people my whole life and I’ve never met one who didn’t care about the environment, or about animals. I’ve met plenty, though, who don’t care for environmentalists. And I understand why. 

A demonstrator walks in front of a row of military police wearing riot gear as they push back demonstrators outside the White
A demonstrator walks in front of a row of military police wearing riot gear as they push back demonstrators outside the White House, on June 1.

Typically, when the environmental movement has attempted to reach out to Black communities, it turns into something I’ve called “existential exceptionalism.” The conversation goes something like, “Oh, you’re worried about police violence? Well, you need to be worried about these POLAR BEARS!” Climate change is framed as the issue that threatens “all of us” and therefore should be everyone’s priority. Climate change, the myth goes, is the Great Equalizer.

Not only is this approach dismissive and insensitive, the premise is simply untrue.

It’s been documented again and again that climate change hurts Black people first and worst — both in the United States and globally. Moreover, Black people did the least to create the problem, and our systemic oppression runs directly parallel to the climate crisis. 

Climate change takes any problem you already had, any threat you were already under, and multiplies it. When you take a population that has lived in chronic crisis, under constant threat, for generations — from police violence to housing discrimination to general disenfranchisement — and add yet another threat? That’s not just a recipe for catastrophe. With the climate crisis itself — the storms and the temperatures — it’s not so much that the game is rigged, it’s the playing field. Climate change is not the Great Equalizer. It is the Great Multiplier.

So it’s not just time to talk about climate — it’s time to talk about it as the Black issue it is. It’s time to stop whitewashing it. In other words, it’s time to stop #AllLivesMattering the climate crisis. 

It’s time to talk about how extreme heat begets extreme violence—and how that can interact with an already extremely violent police force.” It’s time to talk about how extreme heat exacerbates police violence and increases deaths from tasers. It’s time to talk about what happens in prisons, which often lack air conditioning and heat, as temperatures skyrocket. It’s time to talk about climate gentrification. It’s time to talk about the use of tear gas — which hurts respiratory systems during a pandemic that is already disproportionately affecting Black people — as environmental racism.

A protester rinses the eyes of another with water after police fired tear gas during a protest on May 31.
A protester rinses the eyes of another with water after police fired tear gas during a protest on May 31.

And, while we’re at it, it’s time to talk about why Black people face higher rates of COVID-19 infection and death: Because we’re far more likely to live in food deserts, and near dumping grounds, power plants and large-scale animal farms, all of which saddle us with preexisting conditions like asthma, diabetes and heart disease. Those are the same preexisting conditions that authorities attempted to blame for the deaths of Eric Garner and George Floyd

It’s time to talk about what Hurricane Katrina revealed and what I can never, ever unsee: When disaster strikes, the power structure will either abandon us or turn even more sharply against us. When resources run low, we will have the least and when we try to take what we need, we’ll be labeled looters and shot on sight.

It’s time to talk about the white vigilantes who roamed New Orleans after Katrina — and were damn near state-sanctioned — and today’s armed militia groups that are ready and willing to exploit any disaster (including the current protests) to bring about a race war. What do you think they’d do in the aftermath of a hurricane or a fire? 

An aerial view of homes surrounded by floodwaters in New Orleans in September 2005.
An aerial view of homes surrounded by floodwaters in New Orleans in September 2005.

It’s time to talk about my biggest fear about the climate crisis. It’s not, “How will we treat each other?” It’s “How will white people treat people who look like me?”

If caring about climate change and caring about Black people were mutually exclusive, I never would have gotten into climate justice. Black people are my first and true love. I mean, who did y’all think I was fighting for? I got into climate justice work because I love Black people. Do you?

CORRECTION: This article previously cited a study that looked at the correlation between higher temperatures and the use of lethal force by police. That study found that higher temperatures correlated to increases in violent crime and deaths from electric weapons, but no increase in the number of fatal police shootings. The article has been updated with another source that correlations between higher temperatures and violence more generally.

Mary Annaïse Heglar is the writer in residence at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Boston Globe, Vox, WIRED and other places. She is also the co-host and co-creator of the Hot Take podcast and newsletterThis piece was adapted from a piece which originally appeared in the Hot Take newsletter, which you can find here.

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