As anti-racism demonstrations envelop the world, the climate movement feels ineffective as ever.
In Britain, we are proud to declare that “we’re leading the world yet again in becoming the first major economy to pass new laws to reduce emissions to net zero by 2050.” Our screens are always showing strikes and protests, and there has been a boom in the amounts of vegan products hitting our supermarket shelves. Yet, if we look at our climate movement through a lens of social justice, we see that it is nothing to be proud of.
While notorious British climate campaigners Extinction Rebellion emphasise that we are running out of time or we will “witness the breakdown of society as we know it,” lives across the globe are already being torn apart by climate change. And we are responsible. We, along with other countries in the Global North, have sent our waste to South-East Asian countries to deal with. Our appetite for fast fashion has polluted waterways in garment-producing countries like Bangladesh. One WWF study estimated that half of the UK’s true carbon footprint comes from overseas, emissions that won’t be included on our way to becoming net zero.
The dichotomy between the lives of those being affected and the lives of the people we see representing the movement in the media is indicative of how unrelated the climate movement seems to be to the crisis
Another report found that the majority of people displaced from their homes because of the climate crisis are from countries that account for less than 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Our climate movement says nothing about the disproportionate effects of the crisis on poorer communities and communities of colour, globally and domestically. The movement has failed to critique our government’s deceit and their role in tearing apart the lives of non-white people. This race problem became painfully apparent when a young Ugandan activist, Vanessa Nakate, was cropped out of a photo with her fellow activists. She tearfully said, “We don’t deserve this. Africa is the least emitter of carbons, but we are the most affected by the climate crisis.”
This is not just a problem with our overseas emissions. In England, one study found strong links between non-white communities, poor communities and those most affected by air pollution. Unsurprisingly “the most deprived 20 per cent of neighbourhoods had higher air pollution levels than the least deprived neighbourhoods.” The link between race and those harmed by the climate crisis was demonstrated as “the worst air pollution levels were seen in ethnically diverse neighbourhoods… where more than 20 per cent of the population are non-white.” The dichotomy between the lives of those being affected and the lives of the people we see representing the movement in the media is indicative of how unrelated the climate movement seems to be to the crisis. The media seems endlessly fascinated by white, middle-class preachers of veganism who often fail to see their wealth and class privilege. Much was said about the plastic straw ban, but much less about the way this ignored the concerns voiced by disabled people. We have seen endless Extinction Rebellion protests, despite their arrest tactics putting people of colour at disproportionate risk of harm. Voices from our most vulnerable communities never seem to be uplifted.
The media seems endlessly fascinated by white, middle-class preachers of veganism who often fail to see their wealth and class privilege.
The climate movement in the UK has seriously missed the mark on being a credible social justice movement. Some do as little as share their eco-friendly lifestyles on social media and call it activism, becoming poster-people for the movement. This not only reduces a very necessary movement to an exclusive club for the white, pretty, and middle-class but further perpetuates the idea that this movement only exists for people to virtue signal on social media. This side of the movement is not only alienating and a little pointless, but it continues a call for individual action as a solution to the crisis. This is harmful because it isn’t a fair or accurate burden to put on individuals.
One report went viral when it published that just 100 companies are the source of 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions. We cannot forget that BP, a giant of the most polluting industry in the world, popularised the idea of a personal ‘carbon footprint.’ Our emphasis on individual responsibility ensures the industries at fault take none of the blame. When it takes the average Brit five days to produce the carbon emissions an average person from Rwanda produces in a year, the need for intervention at the system level is apparent. Vegan burgers and reusable straws are not enough to balance the effect living in a capitalist society has on the planet. Given we live in a capitalist democracy, it seems absurd that the responsibility would be placed on anyone other than the corporations and governments that run our country. Yet, the climate movement seems to focus endlessly on how individuals in Britain are not doing enough. This year the UK saw record high use of foodbanks, and now we are going into the worst economic recession ever measured. This blame-game tactic is not only ignorant, but it disengages ordinary Britons whose support we need if we want to have sufficient support to pressure our governments for change.
IF THIS YEAR HAS TAUGHT US ANYTHING, IT IS THAT WE HAVE INCENTIVE AND OPPORTUNITY TO BUILD BACK BETTER THAN BEFORE
So I ask again, what is the point of this movement? It will mean very little if all we have achieved is a world that relies slightly less on fossil fuels. If this year has taught us anything, it is that we have incentive and opportunity to build back better than before. The climate movement can still be effective, but it needs the systemic change it is asking the rest of society to undergo. We need to be represented accurately, listen to the needs of those most vulnerable, and gain mass support to apply sufficient pressure on governments at a local, state, and international level. This support will not come if vast sects of society continue to be alienated and ignored by a movement that should be fighting for them. Unless we change it, the climate movement will never go anywhere.
Art by Nadja Vitorovic