Excerpt

The Racial Violence of Climate Change

It’s time to speak plainly about the deadly effects of global warming—and their unjust impact across racial lines.

By , the author of Climate Change Is Racist.
A boy stands by a dried riverbed in Kenya.
A young boy from the remote Turkana tribe in northern Kenya stands on a dried up riverbed near Lodwar, Kenya, on Nov. 9, 2009. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

In September 2016, activists in Britain managed to breach the security of London City Airport and get onto the runway. There, they erected a tripod and locked themselves onto and around it. Flights were disrupted for around six hours, and 131 planes were rerouted before police could dismantle the protest. Nine arrests were made.

The action was carried out by Black Lives Matter U.K. (BLM U.K.), and the banners they laid out on the ground read, “the climate crisis is a racist crisis.” The action was carried out to “highlight the U.K.’s environmental impact on the lives of Black people locally and globally,” BLM U.K. said in a statement. “Black people are the first to die, not the first to fly, in this racist climate crisis.”

Beyond making the connection between climate change and the global inequality of its effects, the protesters’ choice of London City Airport is also significant because it is in the London borough of Newham. London is already the most ethnically diverse city in Britain, and Newham has the smallest percentage of white residents of any local authority in the country, at 29 percent. It is an archetypal “sacrifice zone”—a poorer district with a disproportionate number of Black and Asian residents who put up with more than their fair share of noise and pollution. London City Airport, meanwhile, serves the elite business travelers of London’s financial center. It’s a totemic example of inequality, and its plans to expand further into Newham would later make the airport a target of the climate activist group Extinction Rebellion.

In September 2016, activists in Britain managed to breach the security of London City Airport and get onto the runway. There, they erected a tripod and locked themselves onto and around it. Flights were disrupted for around six hours, and 131 planes were rerouted before police could dismantle the protest. Nine arrests were made.

The action was carried out by Black Lives Matter U.K. (BLM U.K.), and the banners they laid out on the ground read, “the climate crisis is a racist crisis.” The action was carried out to “highlight the U.K.’s environmental impact on the lives of Black people locally and globally,” BLM U.K. said in a statement. “Black people are the first to die, not the first to fly, in this racist climate crisis.”

This article is adapted from Climate Change Is Racist: Race, Privilege, and the Struggle for Climate Justice by Jeremy Williams (Icon Books, 128 pp., .95, August 2021).

This article is adapted from Climate Change Is Racist: Race, Privilege, and the Struggle for Climate Justice by Jeremy Williams (Icon Books, 128 pp., $16.95, August 2021).

Beyond making the connection between climate change and the global inequality of its effects, the protesters’ choice of London City Airport is also significant because it is in the London borough of Newham. London is already the most ethnically diverse city in Britain, and Newham has the smallest percentage of white residents of any local authority in the country, at 29 percent. It is an archetypal “sacrifice zone”—a poorer district with a disproportionate number of Black and Asian residents who put up with more than their fair share of noise and pollution. London City Airport, meanwhile, serves the elite business travelers of London’s financial center. It’s a totemic example of inequality, and its plans to expand further into Newham would later make the airport a target of the climate activist group Extinction Rebellion.

It was perhaps the first time climate and race were connected in the British press, although it was widely misunderstood. “Have you been hijacked?” the BBC asked a BLM U.K. spokesperson. The Daily Mail complained that “all of those involved were white and all from privileged backgrounds,” even though this was a deliberate decision. Even some antiracism campaigners were divided on the protest, wondering if it was a distraction from the real issues. What did flying have to do with Black Lives Matter?

Alexandra Wanjiku Kelbert, one of the protest organizers, explained BLM U.K.’s actions: “When we say Black Lives Matter, we mean all Black lives, and that includes the lives of those who live in proximity to airports, to power plants, to the busiest of roads, and whose children grow up with asthma and skin conditions exacerbated by air pollution.” One particular child comes to mind: Ella Kissi-Debrah. After suffering from respiratory problems for several years, she died in 2013 after a particularly severe asthma attack. She was 9 years old.

Her mother, Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, knew air pollution in their area of London was a factor in her condition and therefore in her death. But as is usually the case, the official cause of death was recorded as asthma. It was only after a long legal case that an inquest ruled in 2020: “Ella died of asthma contributed to by exposure to excessive air pollution.” It was the first time a coroner in the United Kingdom had named air pollution as a cause of death. London’s Black residents face greater exposure to air pollution, and some of the city’s most polluted districts have large Black populations. There is a racial dimension to air pollution in London, another example of environmental injustice and an echo of the Black Lives Matter rallying cry “I can’t breathe.”

Black Lives Matter has mainly been associated with police brutality and mass incarceration along with violence against Black people generally. But in counting the cost of climate change or air pollution, it’s important to recognize that environmental harm is also a form of violence.

The most obvious form of violence is direct or interpersonal, when one person’s actions are seen to harm somebody else. But violence, like racism, can also be understood as structural, embedded in cultural and social patterns. The idea of structural violence was first developed by Johan Galtung in the 1960s. Galtung was an early practitioner of what is now called “peace studies,” a social studies discipline that deliberately distanced peacebuilding and conflict resolution from the study of conflict itself. He argued that violence can be understood at three levels.

At the bottom is cultural violence—long-standing attitudes such as white supremacy or male superiority, for example. This cultural violence legitimizes structural violence, which emerges as patterns of disadvantage, such as racial or gender inequality. The third level is the acts of direct violence that reflect inequality: police shootings or acts of violence against women. Understood in this wider perspective, violence flows upward from deep roots. Violent acts flow from inequalities that, in turn, flow from culture.

Only the top strata requires intent. Direct violence is a deliberate act whereas structural violence results from “numerous acts of omission.” Structural violence is better understood as a process than an event. The suffering it causes can be many times greater than direct violence, but it goes unnoticed because it is depersonified and diffused across many people and different acts. It is the grinding inequality that holds minorities back year after year.

Environmental inequalities are an example of structural violence. They too flow from deep cultural ideas about who is entitled to clean air and water and who is less “deserving.” Who must be kept safe and who is, to quote a Robert D. Bullard book title, the “wrong complexion for protection”?

Consider Archona and Priambandhu, who were farmers in Kaya Benia, a village in Bangladesh. In previous years, they had been able to produce two metric tons of rice from their 11 acres of land. After repeated cyclones and floods, their land has shrunk to two acres, and what remains is polluted with salt. It is underwater for four months of the year. “We don’t know the future, but we can assume that we will lose it all,” Archona said. “We are losing our home. We have lost our livelihood, and we are fighting to have enough food and water for each day. If we just had the land beneath our feet, then we could adapt to climate change.”

Archona and Priambandhu have suffered an act of violence. Their home and their livelihood have been destroyed. Their land has been taken from them. They have contributed almost nothing to the crisis; this is something that has been done to them.

The cause and the effect are so far apart from each other that it might not be recognized as violence. There was no malicious intent, yet their experience is all too common. As greenhouse gases pollute the atmosphere from the world’s most developed countries, the waters rise or the rains fall in faraway places. Heat waves claim the weakest. Crops are lost. Places and the memories they hold are erased. Cultural heritage is eroded. The individual events—the storms and cyclones—are sometimes described as “violent.” Why not the wider issue?

If the cause and effect could be connected, perhaps it would be more obvious that expanding an airport, opening a new coal mine, or pulling out of an international treaty are acts of violence. They are acts of violence perpetrated against nature and biodiversity—and against people of color.

One reason climate change is not seen as violence is it happens so gradually. This is a problem identified by Rob Dixon, a professor at Princeton University’s High Meadows Environmental Institute. He described how environmental harm progresses as “slow violence”: “a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all.”

Climate change is nobody’s fault. Nobody intended it. It has not been designed. It has been “created by generations of decisions from privileged people who seek to make themselves safe and comfortable, who contribute disproportionately to the problem of climate change while tending to avoid its worst effects,” wrote Kevin J. O’Brien in his striking book The Violence of Climate Change: Lessons of Resistance From Nonviolent Activists. “It has no single architect and no direct cause, but it is nevertheless violence—a selfish expression of power that harms others.”

There is a through line from George Floyd in Minneapolis to Archona and Priambandhu in Bangladesh. They have all suffered from acts of violence that spring from underlying patterns of inequality, where some people’s lives have greater value than others’ lives. The convenience of white consumers—the right to drive or fly or eat beef—takes precedence over the rights of people of color around the world.

As demonstrators took to the streets of Minneapolis in May 2020, climate activists from the local branch of 350 served food and provided first aid to protesters. Sam Grant, executive director and environmental justice campaigner, made the connection very clearly: “Police violence is an aspect of a broader pattern of structural violence, which the climate crisis is a manifestation of.” It is all part of the same struggle, the defiant cry that Black lives matter.

The British media may have been wrong-footed by the actions of Black Lives Matter U.K. and their assertion that climate change is racist. African activists would have been less surprised. Maangamizi is a Swahili word that means havoc or annihilation. It has become a shorthand term for an “African holocaust” that stretches from slavery, through colonialism, and into current oppression and the threat of climate change. It is used by pan-African activists and academics, including a group that runs a petition called “Stop the Maangamizi: We charge genocide/ ecocide.”

“We have our own understanding … of the problem of climate change, within the context of Pan-Afrikan Internationalism,” write Kofi Mawuli Klu and Esther Stanford-Xosei from the Pan-Afrikan Reparations Coalition in Europe. The group “sees climate change as one of the results of the criminal imposition—by the ruling classes of Europe—of a rapacious system expropriating the resources of the globe, not only at the expense of the majority of Humanity, but also to the detriment of our Mother Earth.”

The term genocide is not an exaggeration. The first genocide of the 20th century was in German-controlled West Africa, a campaign called the Vernichtung that drove out the Herero and Nama tribespeople. The Times of Israel described it as a “template for the Holocaust.” Similar atrocities occurred in the Congo under Belgium, in Libya under Italian rule, and in the French colonies like Algeria. Other crimes may not fit the specific definition of genocide, but what is the right word for systematically obliterating an entire culture, as British imperialist forces did in the sacking of Benin?

Although colonialism may have formally ended, pan-Africans argue justice is yet to be done and the damage is ongoing. As rapper Akala put it: “They changed that much? Are you so sure? The world’s darker people still the most poor?”

This history of genocide and extraction of value from Africa is now being compounded by the climate crisis. It has taken different forms over the centuries, but the same pattern of cultural violence underlies slavery, colonization, unfair trade rules, and the climate crisis. First, it was the people and their labor. Then, it was the land and its resources. Now, it is the atmosphere. The nature of the plunder has changed, but the logic remains the same: White people are entitled to take what they need from Black people.

This article was excerpted from the forthcoming book Climate Change Is Racist: Race, Privilege, and the Struggle for Climate Justice.

Jeremy Williams is the author of Climate Change Is Racist.

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