Racism derails the effort to fight the climate emergency, and the only way for white people to maintain a habitable planet is to become anti-racist, marine biologist and Ocean Collectiv founder Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson argues in a widely-circulated article for the Washington Post.
“The sheer magnitude of transforming our energy, transportation, buildings, and food systems within a decade, while striving to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions shortly thereafter, is already overwhelming. And black Americans are disproportionately more likely than whites to be concerned about—and affected by—the climate crisis,” Johnson writes.
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“But the many manifestations of structural racism, mass incarceration, and state violence mean environmental issues are only a few lines on a long tally of threats. How can we expect black Americans to focus on climate when we are so at risk on our streets, in our communities, and even within our own homes? How can people of colour effectively lead their communities on climate solutions when faced with pervasive and life-shortening racism?”
Citing a 1975 speech by beloved, Pulitzer- and Nobel-winning African American author Toni Morrison, Johnson stresses that even the most benign forms of racism are “incredibly time consuming”, citing one black friend who gave up the dream of becoming an astronomer because organizing for social justice was a more pressing priority. “Racism, injustice, and police brutality are awful on their own, but are additionally pernicious because of the brain power and creative hours they steal from us,” she writes. “Consider the discoveries not made, the books not written, the ecosystems not protected, the art not created, the gardens not tended.”
In her own life, “here is an incomplete list of things I left unfinished last week because America’s boiling racism and militarization are deadly for black people,” Johnson says: “a policy memo to members of Congress on accelerating offshore wind energy development in U.S. waters; the introduction to my book on climate solutions; a presentation for a powerful corporation on how technology can advance ocean-climate solutions; a grant proposal to fund a network of women climate leaders; a fact check of a big-budget film script about ocean-climate themes, planting vegetables with my mother in our climate victory garden.”
She describes the day-to-day experience and threat of racism, from police sirens and helicopters in her Brooklyn, NY neighbourhood, to the Confederate flags on display near her mother’s home in Upstate New York—in a state that was never even a part of the U.S. Civil War Confederacy. And in addition to bearing disproportionate impacts of climate emergencies, black neighbourhoods are more likely to be the location for fossil power plants and refineries, producing air quality problems that now put them at greater risk for the coronavirus.
“This other intersection of race and climate doesn’t get talked about nearly enough: Black Americans who are already committed to working on climate solutions still have to live in America, brutalized by institutions of the state, constantly pummeled with images, words, and actions showing us just how many of our fellow citizens do not, in fact, believe that black lives matter,” Johnson adds. “Climate work is hard and heartbreaking as it is. Many people don’t feel the urgency, or balk at the initial cost of transitioning our energy infrastructure, without considering the cost of inaction. Many fail to grasp how dependent humanity is on intact ecosystems. When you throw racism and bigotry in the mix, it becomes something near impossible.”
Several segments of Johnson’s post were edited out of the Washington Post version, but showed up yesterday in veteran climate journalist Emily Atkin’s excellent Heated newsletter [subs here].
“I don’t want to make this about race. Really, I don’t,” Johnson wrote.
“I want to focus on how to deal with fossil fuel corporations waging a war against climate science and buying politicians, and putting us on a fast track to catastrophic climate breakdown.
“I want to dedicate my energy to the critical task of transforming our energy, transportation, buildings, and food systems within a decade, and reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions shortly thereafter.”
But “you know that thoughts and prayers won’t solve climate change,” she says. “Well, they won’t solve racism either.”
In tandem with Johnson’s and many other voices, Nature magazine has an article on “grieving and frustrating” black scientists calling out racism and planning an academic strike this week, while Greentech Media reports on structural racism, the coronavirus, and the risks of “breathing while black”.
We need all our allies in minority communities in the fight against environmental degradation. So we must be diligent to support them also, in terms of social justice and equality.