What On Earth

'A question of life and death': Why climate action must also take racial justice into account

Activists and academics spoke to What on Earth host Laura Lynch about how white voices are too often at the centre of climate change discussions, and how conversations about climate justice must also include conversations about social and racial justice.

'Many big green groups and NGOs are ... marked as spaces that are not for us,' says Greenpeace comms officer

Jesse Firempong is a communications officer with Greenpeace Canada. She spoke to What on Earth host Laura Lynch about how major environmental groups often centre white voices to the exclusion of BIPOC voices and concerns. (Submitted by Jesse Firempong)

Jesse Firempong's first work in climate activism started as an intern at the Canadian wing of an international anti-poverty and charity group. But as soon as she began, she was faced with questions of whether she belonged there.

"A family friend, who was also Black, sort of, kind of, did a double take and was like, 'Well, why would you work there? That's a white organization,' " recalled Firempong, whose father immigrated to Canada from Ghana.

"I think the comment is important because ... so many big green groups and NGOs are really implicitly marked as spaces that are not for us."

Today, Firempong is a communications officer with Greenpeace Canada. She and other activists and academics spoke to What on Earth host Laura Lynch about how white voices are too often at the centre of climate change discussions, and how conversations about climate justice must also include conversations about social and racial justice.

Chúk Odenigbo, founding director of Future Ancestor Services, a company led by Black and Indigenous young professionals, found some of Firempong's experiences similar to his own.

He described being "exhausted" by how often he's the only Black person — or only person of colour outright — to speak at or even attend environmental conferences or events. And when he gets there, he said he's been treated like a student or intern — asked for directions or to fetch coffee.

"What gets really annoying is when you just sort of become 'the Black guy' who always has to bring up the race issue. And so it tends to detract away from all the other sort of expertise [I have]," said Odenigbo, who specializes in the intersections of public health and the environment.

A history of exclusion

Firempong isn't afraid of turning that microscope on her own organization's history of exclusion.

"Groups like Greenpeace have spent decades cultivating and talking to a pretty white and privileged audience, you know, so that's who is attracted to their organizations," she said.

"That's not a neutral choice. It's a choice that kind of sustains a culture of white supremacy — and a culture of white supremacy isn't about necessarily always hate. It's about valuing whiteness and white culture and devaluing what isn't white."

Chúk Odenigbo is the founding director of Future Ancestor Services, a company led by Black and Indigenous young professionals. (Submitted by Chúk Odenigbo)

Firempong says there are "incredible people" working from within to help turn that tide, such as Farrah Khan, who joined Greenpeace Canada in August in a newly created deputy director role, whose mandate includes diversity, equity and inclusion.

"She's been leading [our] strategic process around making our hiring practices, our retention policies [and] our culture much safer and much more joyful for her staff of colour," said Firempong.

It's still a slow process, however. In an article titled "Too White To Solve The Climate Crisis?," Firempong cited a 2018 U.S. survey that found people of colour made up about 20 per cent of green NGOs and foundations' membership and leadership.

Firempong noted it still lags behind the 40 per cent of the U.S. population that identifies as non-white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The survey was run by Green 2.0, which describes itself as "an independent advocacy campaign to increase racial and ethnic diversity within the mainstream environmental movement."

In a 2020 update, Green 2.0 said it was encouraged to find that the average number of full-time BIPOC employees among the U.S.'s 40 largest NGOs rose from 56 in 2017 to 62 in 2020.

Climate crisis disproportionately affects BIPOC: professor

Without diversity among its leadership, environmentalist groups risk being unable to speak to — and potentially recruit — members from a wider range of backgrounds and perspectives, according to Ryerson University sociology professor Cheryl Teelucksingh.

"A lot of the environmental movement historically has come out of a [focus on] wilderness protection, conservation sort of orientation, and that has not included the livelihood concerns that Black and racialized populations really emphasize," she said.

Cheryl Teelucksingh is a sociology professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, specializing in environmental justice, racialization and community-based research. (Submitted by Cheryl Teelucksingh)

The approach can exclude audiences despite the best intentions, says Odenigbo.

"You saw people throwing out suggestions and ideas like people need to stop flying, or people need to have less children" in recent years, he said.

Families in lower income countries tend to have more children yet spend less money and use fewer resources than families in higher income countries, he explained. And people in a multicultural country like Canada, he continued, often have family members around the world.

"Not all of us have the privilege, frankly, of having 10 generations of our family in one city."

The divide can be seen far beyond mere messaging and rhetoric, according to Teelucksingh.

She explained that climate change disproportionately affects BIPOC, particularly Indigenous people in Canada, while "predominantly white neighbourhoods are better equipped to deal with the climate crisis."

'Green is not white'

The connection between racialized communities, socio-economic risk and environmental risk is known as environmental racism.

Christopher Wilson, vice-president of the Coalition of the Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) of Ontario, has seen its effects during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Christopher Wilson, vice-president of the Coalition of the Black Trade Unionists of Ontario, says a just transition for workers away from a fossil fuel-based economy needs to reckon with issues of race and equality. (Submitted by Christopher Wilson)

"When COVID first broke, people were told to wash their hands at every moment they can. And in the meantime, we're living in a country where Indigenous peoples in many parts of the country don't have access to clean water," he said.

"So in my mind, this struggle around climate change, environmental racism, really is a question of life and death."

Wilson co-created a workshop with CBTU Ontario called Green is not White to help widen the scope and language of environmentalist groups and make them more inclusive and sensitive to the intersections of climate and racial justice actions.

Transition must be inclusive

It also examines how to transition from a fossil fuel-based economy to a more sustainable model without leaving economically disadvantaged populations behind.

"When you look at structural economic inequality, it's remained quite static for almost a decade, where Black, racialized workers earn about 70 cents on the dollar compared to their white counterparts," he said.

"So when we look at the question of just transition, what we want to advocate for is ensuring that transition to a green economy is inclusive of Black, racialized and Indigenous communities."

Environmental activist groups need to speak to a wider range of backgrounds and perspectives if they want to recruit them to their cause, says Teelucksingh. (Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images)

A private member's bill introduced by Nova Scotia MP Lenore Zann is seeking a national strategy to examine the effects of environmental racism, as well as the connection between hazardous sites and negative health outcomes in communities where Black and Indigenous people and people of colour live.

The bill's second reading is slated to resume on March 23, with a vote expected soon after. If it passes, it will go to committee. 

Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Lisa Johnson and Rachel Sanders.


For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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