The climate movement's silence
On insidious anti-blackness in climate activism, and the rise of Climate Chads.
Protesters kneel in front of New York City Police during a march to honor George Floyd near Union Square on May 31. Credit: John Moore/Getty Images.
About a month ago, I got an email from a reader. This dude, who I call Climate Chad, wanted to unsubscribe because of this newsletter’s periodic focus on racial justice.
“My support of climate issues is about climate, not intersectionality,” he wrote. “Your purity test that requires support of sexual equality, racial discrimination and a raft of stacked identity political issues undercuts your work and needlessly limits your support.”
Climate Chad assumed this newsletter would be “laser-focused” on climate. Instead, he said, he found it to be “like a protest with a million signs all pointing toward a broad mix of liberal policy changes.” He added: “I may agree with all of them, but I focus my support on focused advocacy.”
I initially thought Climate Chad’s message was funny. In retrospect, it speaks to an insidious form of anti-Blackness within the climate movement. This silent racism, environmental justice activists say, is preventing the climate movement from standing in true solidarity with Black Americans as they protest their systemic brutalization by police. And if the movement continues to stay silent while the country burns, they say, the planet will continue to burn alongside it.
The deafening silence of climate leaders
The mainstream environmental movement has long been full of straight-up, unapologetic racists. Like the criminal justice system, American environmentalism was built on a foundation of anti-Black, anti-Indigenous discrimination, which its modern leaders have worked hard to reverse.
There has been some progress, said Liz Havstad, the executive director of Hip Hop Caucus, a Black-centered progressive group. “Environmental organizations will make statements expressing solidarity with black communities and with Black Lives Matter now, which is an important step,” she said. “In the past, there has absolutely been silence around these issues in the climate movement.”
Some in the climate community are indeed speaking up in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police. Big green groups like Sierra Club, League of Conservation Voters, and Earthjustice have released statements condemning the killing and emphasizing their commitments to racial justice. High-profile white climate activists like Greta Thunberg and Jane Fonda have spoken out. And 350.org has even aligned its demands with protesters.
Other high-profile climate activists and groups, however, have remained silent on George Floyd’s death. Neither Al Gore, Bill Nye, nor Leonardo DiCaprio have made statements about the killing, the protests, or systemic police brutality. Citizens Climate Lobby has not made a statement on its website or on Twitter. NRDC has not released a statement on the violence—but it did retweet a Black Lives Matter tweet about it.
It simply does not make sense for anyone in the environmental or climate movement to stay silent on systemic racism, said Havstad. “The burden of the issues that you’re working on are falling harder on all people color, and particularly Black people,” she said. “Unless you’re willing to solve the roots of that disproportionate impact, you’re not solving anything at all.”
The environmental movement’s unwillingness to strongly advocate for racial justice is also likely a big reason why Black people are severely underrepresented in mainstream environmental groups; are less likely to identify as “environmentalists;” and less likely to participate in outdoor recreation, despite consistently reporting higher concern for the environment and the climate than white people. It’s not that they don’t care about solving a crisis that disproportionate affects them. It’s that they’re being pushed away from the biggest conversations with the loudest voices.
“Anti-blackness is rampant in the climate and environmental movement,” Havstad said. “It’s our responsibility to align our climate and environmental work with the movement for black lives.”
Climate Chads are everywhere.
I spoke to four climate justice activists over the weekend—two white, two black—and all four said they had experienced anti-blackness while working in mainstream environmentalism. The type of behavior they described as anti-black was similar and insidious—and to me, defines the Climate Chads.
Climate Chads are self-identified environmentalists who say they care about pervasive racial inequality and police brutality, but don’t believe these issues are related to the climate fight. Or if they do, they believe focusing on racial equality “undercuts” the fight, and limits the climate movement’s ability to achieve broad support.
Real and pervasive, they’re part of the reason why national environmental groups like the Sierra Club have long been reluctant to show solidarity with groups like Black Lives Matter—because, as Outside Magazine reported in 2017, “members often expressed sentiments amounting to ‘racism is not the environmental movement’s responsibility.’”
“There is very little funding that goes to working on environmental justice,” said Sam Grant, the executive director MN350, Minnesota’s chapter of 350.org. “Our funding community like our mainstream environmental organizations have bought into the myth that the objective of environmentalism is to protect nature from people. They don’t realize that our objective is to protect people, who are part of nature.”
The Climate Chads also responsible for a growing rift inside Extinction Rebellion, a group famous for performing acts of civil disobedience that get climate protesters arrested by police. Alleging racial talk is too divisive—that it risks the success of the climate movement—some members have pledged to abandon climate justice activism altogether, in favor of an “All Lives Matter”-esque rallying cry: “one people, one planet, one future.”
That these climate activists think mere talk of racism is more divisive than actual racism exposes their anti-Blackness—not to mention their stupidity. Imagine thinking you have a better chance convincing racists to support the climate movement than engaging minorities across the world. Imagine asking Black people to risk their lives to protect a planet full of people who have never, and will never, risk anything to protect theirs, and thinking that’s the more successful strategy.
That’s what Climate Chads do, though.
Climate justice activists sound off
—“YOU CAN’T LET YOURSELF OFF THE HOOK BECAUSE YOU ALREADY DO GOOD IN THE WORLD,” said Hip Hop Caucus’s Liv Havstad. “By saying ‘I’m already trying to stop polluters and clean air and water,’ you’re letting yourself off the hook, and that’s a huge part of the problem. How much good in the world are you really doing if you’re not doing everything you can to protect black lives?”
—“THE MOST CRITICAL ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE ISSUE IN MINNEAPOLIS IS THE HISTORIC TERRIBLE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE POLICE AND THE COMMUNITY,” said MN350’s Sam Grant. “There’s something going on with structural racism that makes it a persistent form of environmental violence. We have set conditions where Black human beings are not able to wake up breathing clean air and living a good life in their environment because of the decisions made by someone else to benefit themselves.”
—“I CAN’T BREATHE: THOSE WORDS ARE INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT TO THE CLIMATE AND ENVIRONMENTAL MOVEMENT,” said Havstad. “How do we make sure our movement is responding to all the ways people can’t breathe, particularly black people?
—“I WANT US TO TAKE A CLEARER STAND ON POLICING,” said Noa Shavit-Lonstein, MN350's Just Transition (speaking for herself, not the organization). “I’d like to see a clear stance on the police crisis we’re in, and how it connects to the climate crisis. I want to see us able to bring in more volunteer leadership from a wider section of communities that represent Minnesota. At one point [MN350 was] almost entirely white. Now I think we have closer relationships with other communities, Native Americans in particular … [but] we just haven’t found the place to engage on with Black communities, or we’ve chosen not to engage on it.”
—“THE STATEMENTS OF SOLIDARITY ARE GOOD, BUT THEY’RE NOT ENOUGH,” said Havstad. “How are these groups’ statements connecting to and translating with the daily work of climate activism and climate leadership? How do they stack up against the strategic direction of the movement? How do they compare to the resources devoted to black communities? I pose these questions just to say the gears aren’t connected at this point. The statements of solidarity and support are not back up yet with significant action. And it’s the next step that has to be taken immediately.”
Will feature an interview with Anthony Rogers-Wright of the Climate Justice Alliance, who traveled to Minneapolis to attend a night of protest over the weekend. If you want a refresher on what Anthony brings, check out Episode 3 of the HEATED podcast, where we talked about the connections between COVID-19 and environmental justice.
The link above includes an audio file and the full written transcript; you can also find it on all your podcast apps HERE.
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This article (and the comments below) reminds me of So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo:
"While just about everything can be about race, almost nothing is completely about race. It is important that we are aware of the different factors in any situation of oppression or conflict [..] A lot of people feel like acknowledging race in a problem will make that problem only about race, and that will leave a lot of people out. But race was designed to be interwoven into our social, political, and economic systems. Instead of trying to isolate or ignore race, we need to look at race as a piece of the machine, just as we'd look at class or geography when considering social issues. Race alone is not all you need to focus on, but without it, any solution you come up with just won't work."
Thanks for sharing this! As a black person that has worked in the environmental space for a while. I have of course noticed the disparities in a lot of the decision making in many sustainability spaces and organizations. I have actually called out places I worked at for not having enough representation even though we were working in black communities. My lens of addressing climate issues does not allow for the larger justice issues to be divorced from that and it takes a lot to continue to work on these issues with people that I can tell do not share that same ethos. It gets tiring having to explain that to people and it should not be my job to do so, yet it seems irresponsible for me not to. Thank you for posting this and being an ally.