Dr. Ingrid Waldron, director of Environmental Noxiousness, Racial Inequities and Community Health Project (ENRICH), shares ideas for fostering the inclusion of Black communities in climate action.
A common critique of white-led organizations in the environment and climate change sector is that they often speak for the communities that are most impacted by environmental and climate change injustices, rather than providing resources/space for those communities to speak for themselves. Thus, these organizations can block social movements from being included in decision-making processes and silence the very voices they are trying to represent/aid (Quinn-Thibodeau & Wu, 2016).
Black and other racialized and marginalized communities in the global north and south are disproportionately vulnerable to the climate crisis because they are more likely to be exposed to pollution and contamination from nearby industry and reside in places where they are also more likely to be impacted by rising sea levels, disappearing shorelines, heavy rainfall, raging storms and floods, intense heat waves, increasing wildfire, poor air quality, higher rates of climate-related diseases, and other effects of climate change that hit them first and worst (Akerlof et al., 2015; Durkalec, Furgal, Skinner & Sheldon, 2015; Lewis, 2016; Simmons, 2019; United Nations, 2019; Waldron, 2018).
In addition, Black and other racialized communities are at greater risk for climate disasters because they are more likely to experience long-standing structural inequities that make it more difficult for them to escape, survive, and recover from these disasters (Ellis-Lamkins, 2013). Despite their greater vulnerability to climate disasters, Black people are significantly under-represented in climate conversations, solutions, and actions because they are less likely to be engaged in conversations and actions on climate change by ENGOs.
This article discusses some of the reasons why Black Canadian voices have been under-represented in climate change conversations, solutions and actions, and offers suggestions for how the adoption of a climate justice lens by leaders in the climate sector and other sectors can foster their inclusion in ways that can build their capacity to address climate concerns in their own communities.
Climate justice is both a concept and movement that recognizes that different communities will be impacted differently and unequally by climate change based on race, socio-economic status, class, gender, age, dis(ability), sexuality, and other social identities. For example, climate justice helps to unpack the ways in which Black communities are disproportionately exposed to and impacted by climate change, and pinpoints how climate change exacerbates long-standing social, economic, and health inequalities in these communities.
An article published by CBC Nova Scotia noted that while climate change is considered the most pressing issue of our times, it is not a top priority for Black communities in Nova Scotia, who are more concerned about poverty and racism (Borden Colley, 2019). However, climate specialists in Halifax observe that African Nova Scotian communities in North Preston, East Preston and Cherry Brook are on the urban wildlands interface, which are populated areas bordering forest zones. Forest fires are likely to occur in these areas due to increasing dry periods over time resulting from climate change (Borden Colley, 2019).
Studies have been emerging over the years on climate change impacts in African American communities. In a focus group study Third Way conducted to understand how African Americans felt about climate change, it suggests that policymakers have not been successful in communicating the relevance of climate change to African American communities and that climate change is not a top priority among African Americans. According to the study, this can be attributed to several factors, including the exclusion of African Americans from the conversation around climate change and the transition to a clean energy economy, as well as their under-representation in the climate change and green economy sector, resulting in the minimization of their visibility in those spaces and, therefore, the challenges implementing inclusive solutions.
The priority issues identified by African Americans at the focus groups included health care, education, racism, poverty, school debt, and crime. Some participants pointed out that climate change wasn’t an issue that was being discussed with the African American community specifically and that when it was discussed, it was typically during an election season. They also noted that they were not aware of any African American climate leaders in the climate movement and that the movement was overwhelmingly white.
Addressing the under-representation of Black Canadian communities in climate conversations, solutions and actions must, therefore, involve a multi-pronged approach that not only requires an understanding and articulation of the unique and specific ways in which Black Canadian communities are impacted by climate change, but also involves leadership in multiple sectors. In the following section, I offer suggestions for how the adoption of a climate justice lens can provide both the analytical and practical tools required to engage Black Canadian communities in the climate change sector.
Suggestions for Fostering the Inclusion of Black Communities in Climate Conversations, Solutions and Actions
It is important to hold leaders in the climate change sector accountable for identifying and implementing solutions for increasing the representation and inclusion of Black Canadian communities in climate conversations, solutions, and actions. In this section, I outline how a multisectoral approach that includes ENGOs, and other NGOs, policymakers, researchers, and health agencies can demonstrate leadership in providing Black Canadians with more equitable opportunities to participate in climate conversations, solutions, and actions.
First, it is important that leaders in the climate sector and other sectors employ a climate justice lens to examine how climate change is experienced in unique and specific ways by Black communities due to historical processes that have led to structural inequities in Black Canadian communities (unemployment, income insecurity and poverty, etc.). These inequities not only render Black communities more vulnerable to climate devastation, but that also make it more difficult for them to recover from it.
Advancing climate justice and engaging Black communities in the climate sector must be premised on anti-racism, anti-sexism, and other anti-oppression frameworks that acknowledges Black people will experience climate impacts in distinct ways due to differences in income, social class, culture, gender identity, sexual orientation, immigrant status, disability, age, and other social identities.
Second, engaging Black Canadian communities in the climate change sector also means communicating the relevance of climate change to Black people and, specifically how it is relevant to their everyday lived experiences. For example, this includes highlighting the relationship between climate change and unemployment and underemployment, income insecurity and poverty, food insecurity, housing insecurity, and poor health outcomes – priority issues for Black Canadian communities.
Third, given the dearth of research on climate change in Black Canadian communities, more research is needed that recruits participants from the Black community to share their thoughts on how it is experienced in their communities, their knowledge and awareness of its impacts, the networks they rely on to address and recover from its impacts, and the extent to which they are engaged in climate change preparedness in their communities.
Fourth, system change must support actions focused on reinventing and reshaping the power structures that create the social and economic inequalities faced by Black communities, on decolonizing our colonial, racist, sexist, exploitative, and violent economic systems, and on transitioning to more inclusive, just, and equitable social and economic systems. This must include addressing inequitable access to green jobs faced by Black communities by involving them in conversations on a just transition to the green economy.
Finally, issues of justice, human rights, and civil rights must be central to climate policy in Canada since the nuance of race and its intersections with other identities is often absent in climate change conversations. Not surprisingly, then, this absence leads to the absence of the voices of the very people who are most impacted by climate change and who must have a seat at the table when climate policy is being envisioned and implemented.
Akerlof , K. L., Delamater, P. L., Boules, C. R., Upperman, C. R., & Mitchell, C. S. (2015). Vulnerable populations perceive their health as a risk from climate change. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 12(12), 15419-15433.
Borden Colley, S. (2019). Black and Indigenous voices often missing from climate change discussions. November 12. CBC News Nova Scotia. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/climate-change-indigenous-black-nova-scotia-poverty-race-1.5350495
Durkalec, A., Furgal, C., Skinner, M. W., & Sheldon, T. (2015). Climate change influences on environment as a determinant of Indigenous health: Relationships to place, sea ice, and health in an Inuit community. Social Science & Medicine, 136-137, 17-26.
Ellis-Lamkins, P. (2013). How climate change affects people of color, March 3. The Root.
Lewis, S. K. (2016) Climate justice: Blacks and climate change. The Black Scholar, 46(3), 1-3.
Quinn-Thibodeau, T., & Wu, B. (2016). NGOs and the climate justice movement in the Age of Trumpism. Development, 59(3–4), 251–256.
Simmons, D (2020). What is climate justice? July 29. Yale Climate Connections. https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2020/07/what-is-climate-justice/
United Nations (2019). Climate justice. May 31. United Nations. https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2019/05/climate-justice/
Waldron, I.R.G. (2018). There’s something in the water: Environmental racism in Indigenous & Black communities. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing.