Black poor people in Britain and the Global South continue to suffer disproportionately from climate change but their voices are conspicuously absent from upcoming COP26, and recent scandals in the Green Party have also damaged relations – Francisca Rockey speaks to Black climate change makers about the sector’s serious diversity problem.
Climate change is a global issue that disproportionately affects women, ethnic minorities and other marginalised groups. The first person to have air pollution listed as a cause of death on their birth certificate was Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, a young Black girl. Yet there is a lack of representation in the organisations that are working to tackle it. The thoughts and opinions of those most affected are routinely unheard or treated as an afterthought.
2020 saw a rise in Black and people of colour-led organisations working to tackle our erasure in the environmental discussion both academically and professionally. The environment and sustainability sector is the second least diverse profession in the UK, with only 3.1% of professionals within the sector identifying as an ethnic minority. Year on year, the sector fails to recruit and retain talent from marginalised groups.
Even when you look at the makeup of non-governmental environmental organisations or global environmental movements, like Extinction Rebellion, who are infamous for their disruptive protesting style, the majority identify as white, middle class and are often highly educated. Researchers, Karen Bell and Gnisha Bevan suggested that if Black, minority ethnic and working class people feel excluded or alienated by groups like Extinction Rebellion, they may reject environmentalism more generally. There is no telling how damaging this could be long-term.
COP26 will bring together world leaders including climate scientists, activists and educators to discuss the future of our planet and agree on action points to tackle climate change. Though Alok Sharma who will preside is from an ethnic minority background, the UK’s decision to use an all-male team has already been criticised. There are growing concerns about whether the interests of marginalised groups will be considered.
We should all be present and involved. However, other young, Black people like me who care deeply about the environment are not engaged. That’s a problem for everyone, so I spoke to some Black climate change makers to find out why.
Abigail is a 21-year-old ethical fashion blogger based in London. She feels Black voices struggle to be recognised as experts on the global stage in the same way as their white peers. She mentions how Vanessa Nakate was cropped out of news reports about young climate activists.
“Indigenous communities are the original, I would argue only, climate experts since they’re eye to eye with climate destruction. I often feel that there’s no room for diverse voices in the climate movement and once one diverse voice gains a following, it’s almost impossible for other newbies, youth or grassroots organisations from diverse backgrounds to be acknowledged. Can there only be one of us?”
“Racism plays a big part in climate change and we don’t seem to address it, the same conversations are always being regurgitated.”
For Abi, the lack of diversity at COP26 makes her wonder who it is for, and doubt what can be achieved.
“I already know there is going to be a lack of certain types of knowledge at this year's event,” she explains.
“Discussions are aimed at climate researchers and scientists rather than working class, marginalised people.”
When I spoke to Black activists working to engage their communities with environmental issues, the problem of class came up regularly. Both Abi and Kelly Smith, an expert on flood prevention, spoke about how climate summits fail to engage with the groups they serve.
“It is very rare that I come across Black working-class people in the natural world and within climate organisations and groups anyway,” she shares.
“But I don’t think much has changed since the last climate summit either. I don’t want to be a sceptic but the upcoming COP26 is going to be the same group of people giving the same speeches, regurgitating the same things said at the last event with no real change.”
Nivi is in her twenties. She is growing a network of busy zillennials taking action on the issues they care about. Climate action is a big part of her work and advocacy.
She believes there is a disconnect between those who will lead discussions at COP26, and the people who are at the greatest risk from climate change.
“Lack of diversity in the movement frustrates me because often, the people leading don't get it. They likely haven't lived across slums where you can see the lack of food and clean water; they haven't lived in areas with disproportionate air pollution; they know if they face a disaster, they'll be the first to safely evacuate and have enough financial support to be okay.
“When I first learned about sustainability as a movement, it just seemed like a trendy thing my white friends did in university. Sewing patches on ripped jeans, biking everywhere, composting, all of this was foreign to me.
“Things finally started clicking when I learned more about social issues around the world and saw how clearly linked everything is - colonialism, climate change, broken education systems, racism or gender inequality. Environmentalism is so much more than just foregoing paper towels or buying slow fashion.
“With COP26 specifically, I don't understand how world leaders can expect to actually bring environmental justice and equity to their countries if they haven't faced these injustices themselves. It seems more rooted in political clout and diplomatic tactics than a genuine effort to actually understand how real people - and most people - face the problems going on in our world.”
The lack of diversity in key political spheres is not only detrimental to marginalised groups, but it is likely to delay effective action to tackle the climate emergency.
It’s not that Black communities don’t care about climate change. Not at all. Given that a year of racial reckoning has not led to a more diverse COP26 - a more accurate way to describe the problem is this: those with decision-making power do not seem to care enough to listen to us.