People of Colour Suffer The Most From Climate Change. That’s Why Solving It Isn’t a Priority.

Aizah Malik
9 min readFeb 25, 2021

Racism isn’t dead. Climate change is real. The fact that the significance of both of these issues is still a matter of debate is horrifying.

Could it be that they have more in common than we think?

Aritist’s rendition of how climate change affects urban communities

In 2020, there were two events that each demonstrated what happens when you let an issue fester.

First, we had the Australian wildfires. Despite decades of warning, the action taken by our highest levels of government to address climate change is lacking and the flames that engulfed much of Australia early last year was proof of this.

Climate change wasn’t the only thing sparking flames. Later on in the year, we witnessed the murder of George Floyd, a brutal act of police violence that showed how deeply rooted racism is in America. This led to an international series of protests against anti-Black racism, a phenomenon that has been denied for far too long.

At first glance, these issues are unrelated. One is about protecting marginalized communities and the other aimed at saving the planet. However, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my life, it’s that the world is quite like a spiderweb. Even when they’re from different corners, at one point or another, certain things always intersect.

A Brief Overview of Climate Change🌎

If you’ve been living on this planet in the past couple of years and had access to any media or news source at all, you’ve heard the term ‘climate change’.

The type of climate change that we’re going to be discussing today is called anthropogenic climate change. Anthropogenic is just a fancy way of saying ‘caused by humans’. I guess you could say this is an anthropogenic article :)

That’s one of the main areas of debate on the legitimacy of climate change as many skeptics *cough* trump supporters *cough* claim that climate change is ‘natural’.

Most climate change is attributed to minor changes in Earth’s orbital path which cause a change in how much sunlight we receive. However, the climate change that you hear about in the news is not the result of this.

According to NASA,

…current warming is occurring roughly ten times faster than the average rate of ice-age-recovery warming. Carbon dioxide from human activity is increasing more than 250 times faster than it did from natural sources after the last Ice Age

This evidence shows that the climate change we’re witnessing today is unique and not a result of natural phenomenon, but human activity.

Image depicting wildfire that was ravaging California, 2020

The Effects of Racism ✊🏿

Discriminating against groups of people based on their race or ethnic background is nothing new.

According to Wikipedia, racism is “the belief that groups of humans possess different behavioural traits corresponding to physical appearance and can be divided based on the superiority of one race over another”.

In short, racism is the idea that certain races are better than others and is the root of several practices that discriminate against the race that is considered inferior.

Many people argue that “racism is dead” or that people who still believe that it has an impact on society are “snowflakes”. A common argument is that we should simply forget the events of the past and “move on”. This fails to take into account that the events of the past are what mould our present.

Our society is built upon layers of centuries and centuries of racism, particularly against Black people. Denying this fact or the implications it has in the current day is like trying to cover up the smell of rotten food with cheap perfume. It just doesn’t work.

Black Americans in the cotton industry after slavery was ‘abolished’

This is a touchy subject but brushing it under the carpet only fuels the flames. And as many of the people who argue that racism is dead like to say, “facts don’t care about your feelings”.

So let’s discuss the facts.

  1. A Harvard study showed that applicants who whitewash their names are more likely to get called in for an interview despite having the exact same qualifications and resume.
  2. Black women are 3 to 4 times more likely to experience a pregnancy-related death than white women, even at similar levels of income and education.
  3. On average, Black men in the US receive sentences that are 19.1% longer than those of white men convicted for the same crimes.
  4. In a study conducted by Rutgers University, 22% of Hispanic/Latino workers reported experiencing workplace discrimination, compared to only 6% of whites.
  5. The Immigration Act of 1917 created an “Asiatic barred zone” provision prohibiting immigration from British India, most of Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, and the Middle East.
  6. Indigenous women are 12 times more likely to be murdered or go missing than any other ethnic group in Canada

These examples provide a peek into the world of discrimination but it still doesn’t give an idea of the injustices many people have faced simply for the colour of their skin.

If the idea of removing racism from communities sounds like a radical notion, one that threatens the fabric of society, I want you to ask yourself.. Why is something built on the foundations of hatred so deeply intertwined with what you view as valuable?

How The Two Are Linked🔗

To understand how racism is linked to climate change, let’s take a look at the people who are suffering the most from the Earth heating up.

A study published in 2019 concluded that Black and Hispanic communities are exposed to far more air pollution than what they produce.

Several other studies show that people of colour tend to have the least resources available to them when it comes to coping with extreme weather events. This can be seen in the lack of cars available to Black-Americans living in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina ravaged their community.

New Orlean’s mother calling for help in aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

However, it’s important to note that the effects of climate change are targeting countries that are already struggling economically. Many developing countries, where the majority of people depend on natural resources as a source of income, are being hit the hardest by climate change.

Climate change is causing hurricanes to increase in frequency and intensity. Haiti, a country in the “Atlantic Hurricane Basin” is suffering the most from this.

Climate change is causing an increase in global temperatures. Yemen, a country where malaria is rampant will suffer greatly from this. This is because malaria-spreading mosquitoes thrive in hot climates.

Climate change is causing weather patterns that have remained stable for centuries to shift. Iranian farmers that follow ancient planting schedules are suffering from this as they no longer know when they can plant their crops.

Farmers in Iran working the land

I’m not a mathematician, but the common denominator that unites all these communities is quite clear: they’re all people of colour and have lower socioeconomic status.

Before we move on, I’d also like to bring up who benefits from climate change the most. Well, perhaps ‘benefits’ isn’t the right word since it’ll end up in their backyard eventually, but you know what I mean. Which communities are the least affected by climate change?

I’m not patient and I’m guessing you aren’t either so I’ll be nice and give you the answer quick! It’s the rich CEO’s who make billions off of businesses that pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere almost as fast as they fund advertising campaigns explaining how much they care about making our planet a greener place.

It’s also the well-to-do North American families that produce unreal amounts of waste that a poor kid halfway across the world will sift through hoping to find a scrap to eat.

The all too familiar sight of food waste, an invisible cause of climate change

This time, however, the uniting factor is the fact that the majority of these CEO’s and blissfully ignorant households aren’t people of colour, but rather white people.

The Face of Climate Justice 🔊

When you think of climate justice, chances are that your mind goes to university age American students going on a protest to ban plastic straws. Or maybe you think of the picture-perfect family (mother and father with a son, daughter, and golden retriever) practising ‘reduce, reuse and recycle!’.

The people you thought of were most probably caucasian, comfortably middle class, and able-bodied.

That’s not your fault. The climate movement is incredibly whitewashed and we need to talk about it. Despite the fact that more than twice as many Black and Hispanic teens participated in the school walkouts to raise awareness about climate change than white students, they don’t get nearly as much representation in mainstream media.

American teenagers protesting to raise awareness about climate change

Greta Thunberg is a Swedish girl and while she has done an incredible job of using her platform to raise awareness about the importance of fighting climate change, she cannot speak on the struggles that marginalized communities of colour face due to climate change.

Please understand, I am in no way saying that Greta Thunberg doesn’t deserve to be heard or that her accomplishments are invalid. She is an amazing young woman who has dedicated her life to making sure climate justice isn’t a cause that goes unheard on the national stage.

However, we need more representation in the climate movement. We should be hearing about climate change from the communities that are suffering the most.

Elizabeth Yeampierre calls for justice for an Indigenous environmental activist who was murdered in her home

The communities where the children spend their days in a hospital bed because the air they breathe poisons their lungs.

The communities where hundreds of people lost their jobs and have no way of putting food on the table because of changing weather patterns.

The communities in coastal regions where the buildings have been ravaged by rising sea levels.

It’s those people that need the most representation. Their voices, their stories.

If we refuse to address the implications of racism and how people of colour will be taking the brunt of the consequences, we’re setting ourselves up for failure.

Climate change has become the devastating issue it is today because of people brushing uncomfortable truths under the carpet and hoping that someone else will deal with them.

As Albert Einstein once said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

TL;DR⚡

To tackle climate change, we need a holistic approach, one that takes into account how discrimination against people of colour has put them at a disadvantage in society that will only be exacerbated by climate change.

We need people of colour’s involved in the decision making process on how to mitigate climate change at the highest levels of government but also in local communities. Let’s stop sugarcoating the truth and save the Earth — even if the discussions that it’ll take to get there aren’t an easy pill to swallow.

Thank you for taking the time to read this article!

If you liked it, be sure to give it a clap and follow my Medium for more. My content is on everything STEM and social change. Oh, and I have a LinkedIn :)

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