Why aren’t we out in the streets demanding climate action right now?
Yes, this is the Era of Covid, but there are ways to do masked, socially-distanced public demonstrations.
Yes, the push against racism, and particularly against police brutality, needs a lot of energy and attention right now, but these things need not be either/or. They can be both/and. And, in fact, they must be.
For years I’ve been frustrated by the environmental movement’s collective complicity in the pigeon-holing of our cause. We allow “environment” and “climate change,” and other such labels to be listed on public opinion polls and what-not alongside “the economy” and “public health” and “national security,” as though it were possible to care about one and not the other.
As though it were possible to have a vibrant economy without functional ecosystems from which to derive resources.
As though it were possible to have a healthy populace without clean air, clean water, good food, and natural beauty.
As though it were possible to protect national security as rising seas flood our military bases, heat waves kill our service members, and climate change-fueled droughts and other disasters pump out angry and desperate people looking for somebody to blame.
Why do we position environmental issues as competition against the health and welfare of people’s kids? Of course we’re going to lose. We’ve been losing. A majority of Americans care about environmental issues and want climate action, but it doesn’t happen because there’s always some issue more important on people’s minds.
When are we going to admit that the “more important issue” is also climate change? Public health is climate change, education is climate change, the economy is climate change, criminal justice is climate change, the full realization—at long last!—of the best American ideals is climate change! Without meaningful climate action, we lose all the other fights, too.
Yes, of course, turn up at Black Lives Matter events. If you’re white (as I am), educate yourself, follow instructions, do some soul-searching, and speak up when your friends and family say or do racist crap. There is a moment we need to rise to. Part of that rising does, indeed, require a certain selective focus.
But to say that a focus on racial justice requires not working on climate at all is both morally and factually untrue.
Because there is a climate dimension of racial justice, too.
We know that industrial facilities are disproportionately sited in non-white communities, exposing people of color to a far greater share of toxins. It’s not a big leap to suppose that this hiding of industry away from white communities might be one of the things that keeps our whole unsustainable system profitable.
We know that worldwide, heat waves kill more people in low-income urban communities, and that in the US these communities are overwhelmingly black (other non-white groups are also at substantially elevated risk, but not to the same extent).
We know that rising temperatures are also associated with increased rates of both interpersonal and group violence—and since cops are human, we can assume that will extend to increased rates of police brutality, too.
We know that climate change is raising global food prices through a variety of mechanisms. The US isn’t seeing the change directly yet, but when we do, it will it low-income families hardest, families who are, again, disproportionately not white.
We know that natural disasters–which are increasingly common because of climate change, consistently increase race-related income gaps among survivors. In general, the greatest impacts of disasters consistently fall on the least-privileged, who are least likely to be able to rebuild and least likely to be able to evacuate in the first place
We know that racism has been and is being used as a tool to keep climate deniers in power where they can prevent meaningful climate action.
Now is not the time for environmentalists to sit down, shut up, and wait our turn. To suppose that it is perpetuates the idea that environmental issues are separate from everything else, an idea that guarantees we will lose. No, now is the time to put our expertise and connections and interests in service to the moment. Nothing less will do.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, there were white folks who hunted black people through the ruined, lawless streets for sport. Those murders were ignored for years, and some may never be solved. Does anybody think that can’t happen again? The waters are rising. Storms are getting more severe.
Why does climate change matter? Because black lives do.