Notes on the climate crisis: racism

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Refugees under attack on Lesbos

Many climate activists know that increased racism could be one outcome of climate chaos. There is a recognition that the worst affected victims will come from the Global South. But also that to build a movement with the social power to transform society we need to overcome the divisions in society caused by racism.

Race has already become a factor in the climate crisis. When hurricane Dorian struck the Bahamas last year, it was left to a cruise ship to pick up the survivors. Donald Trump prevented a cruise ship carrying survivors from disembarking in US ports. He later justified this action by claiming that the Bahamas was, “full of very bad gang members”.

The figures for climate migration are often understated. There are no clear records of displacement caused by slow-onset climate extremes such as sea-level rise and desertification. Climate refugee is not a category recognised in international law. Often this migration is classed as economic or other planned migration, failing to acknowledge fully the push factor resulting from the destabilisation of the climate.

This leaves the full human impact unknown.

It is not known, of the many thousands of Africans forced to make the perilous crossing across the Mediterranean every year, how many are driven off the land as a result of climate collapse.

Extreme weather events are already devastating communities and are the major cause of internal displacement according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. In 2016 (far from an exceptional year), “weather-related sudden-onset hazards”, such as cyclones and floods, displaced around 24.2 million people out of a total of 31.1 million displaced people.

According to a recent study by Cornell University, 1.4 billion people could be forced to leave their homes by 2060 and this number could rise to 2 billion by 2100.

Don’t be surprised if politicians like Trump, despite their climate denial, suddenly pivot over the climate crisis. They can quickly change their rhetoric by putting their solutions to the climate crisis in the form of strong borders and more security.

In Central America, poor and desperate Campesinos are migrating north due to the collapse of agriculture, especially coffee production. They are having to confront the wall Trump is building on the border with Mexico. Trump’s wall is a climate wall, designed to keep out the victims of climate chaos. Sudden changes in tune won’t be a cause for celebration.

A lot of anti-racist politics, in as far as there exists a politics of anti-racism within UK climate groups, is informed by a liberal anti-racism, which puts the onus on the individual rather than on collective action in opposing racism and resisting systems of oppression.

So racism is viewed as an individual pathology (such as the notion of unconscious bias). The problem is this can coexist with a lot of other ideas, such as the myth of overpopulation as a cause for the environmental crisis or support for immigration controls.

Rupert Read, a leading spokesperson for XR, wrote in a letter to the Guardian, “It’s high time for Greens and the left to reassess their (our) tacit support for open borders. Advocating continued mass migration will terminally alienate ordinary working people in this country — and for good reason”.

A lot of climate activist groups like to beat themselves up over their lack of ethnic diversity, such sentiments don’t help us build the sort of mass climate justice movement we need to save the planet.

Climate change will exacerbate existing crises and conflicts. The way society responds to a given crisis (environmental or otherwise) is conditioned by the dominant ideology and the balance of class forces. But it is a response mediated by the state and other economic actors.

One response is to bolster racism and strengthen borders; the alternative could be a Green New Deal. So, what we do makes a difference.

And one of the best responses climate justice activists can make — here and now — is to support the marches that are being organised around the world on UN Anti-racism day, Saturday 21 March 2020.