As climate change and environmental degradation worsen, imagining our potentially apocalyptic future begs the question: Who will face the consequences first? Unfortunately, evidence suggests that non-white people and the global south are already disproportionately becoming victims of environmental degradation.
Racism and environmentalism are often thought of as two independent problems that face society today. However, these two ‘-isms’ have more in common than you might think.
In this article, I will examine how environmental issues of pollution, fast-fashion, and oil are already having disproportionate effects on non-white people and the global south.
Firstly, when looking at the issue of air pollution, poor air quality has always disproportionately affected inner-city areas, and race has been proved to play a role in this as well. The Guardian conducted a study in 2016, the results of which showing that black, African and Caribbean people account for 15.3% of all Londoners exposed to nitrogen dioxide levels breached EU limits, even though they make up for only 13.3% of the city’s overall population. The consequences of these statistics are already posing drastic effects on minority public health as shown by the recent case of Ella Kissi-Debrah who’s home in Lewisham had illegal levels of air pollution. Ella had severe asthma and died in 2013 at just 9 years old from a series of seizures which have now been shown to follow patterns of pollution warnings in her area. Whilst it is too late for Ella and her family, an inquest into her death was launched in July which will hopefully provide some further answers and bring the relevant authorities to justice. However, this is not a problem exclusive to London or even the UK. Of the world’s 20 most polluted cities, 15 are in India and the rest are almost exclusively in Asia. It is no surprise that countries such as India, China, and other Asian nations have such high levels of air pollution when they host the majority of western nations’ commercial factories.
Racism also interacts with environmentalism in the recent debate surrounding the Dakota access pipeline which threatens the Standing rock reservation belonging to the Sioux tribe. The proposed oil pipeline which would link North Dakota with the Gulf coast would disrupt not only a sacred burial ground, but would also endanger local water supply to the tribal land. The disregard for both the religious practices and public health of Native Americans is indicative of the wider institutional racial discrimination they face every day in their own country. This is before we even begin to talk about the environmental impact of encouraging the use of fossil fuels and the potential environmental damage caused in the event of oil spills. Clearly, if the US government valued the well-being of Native Americans or the environment more than it did corporate interest, then projects like this simply wouldn’t be approved.
Finally, when looking at the fashion industry, the environmental impact of so-called ‘fast-fashion’ also has strong racial undertones. This is due to the disproportionate number of women of colour who work in the textiles industry in countries such as Bangladesh and China. Here, the same throwaway culture that is harming the environment is also harming the Asian textile workforce, often working in inhumane conditions and without labour representation for low wages.
However, conversely whilst victims of climate change in many ways, some African nations are also becoming the trailblazers in governmental commitment to the fight against climate change and other environmental issues. One example of this is the city of Durban in the eThekwini province of South Africa. In 2017 they made strong commitments to sustainable energy creating a sustainable energy forum and a solar energy project which installed solar panels on local government-owned buildings to combat the city’s energy sovereignty problem. Facing an estimated 30% to 100% increase in year-to-year rainfall variability, they introduced community-based projects to protect the area’s rivers from erosion and clean up waste. This included training young members of the community as a long-term strategy and a series of awareness campaigns in schools, communities and local NGOs. At the same time as supporting flagship programs for transport, integrated waste management, and water conservation to name a few – in 2017 alone! Oh? And did I mention they achieved all this whilst having a majority or equal representation of women on their councils and committees AS WELL AS boasting a strong female mayor in Zandile Gumede?
Meanwhile, this month we saw the UK government defund incentives for household solar panels as well as the scandal of Poland having to return illegal waste from the UK. Not to mention the USA (the biggest contributors to climate change worldwide) pulling out of the Paris Climate agreements earlier this year as their government continues to support various high-profile climate change deniers.
To conclude, from these examples, as with all social issues, racial bias must be considered when discussing environmental damage and climate change. Non-white people nationally and internationally are already seeing the effects of climate change and this is certainly a factor that needs to be addressed in future climate strategies. This environmental racism will only continue if a more intersectional approach is not taken both locally and globally.