Intersectional Environmentalism: Climate Justice, Environmental Racism and Inclusion in the Environmental Movement
By Nayah Thu
On January 26th 2021, Greta Thunberg again criticised politicians and business leaders for inaction on the climate crisis in a video message to the Davos Agenda week,  aimed at an audience of mostly wealthy, White* men – a group wholly unrepresentative of the world’s population. It’s not just Davos that struggles with issues of racism and lack of representation - so too does the mainstream environmental movement. Even as the disproportionate effects of climate change on developing nations are becoming widely understood, there is insufficient focus on amplifying Black and Brown voices within the movement. In order to fairly and effectively fight the climate crisis, environmental actors need to embrace “intersectional environmentalism” and actively work to reach social justice. 
In 2014, a police officer fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager, in a St. Louis suburb. Missouri native Leah Thomas returned to her environmental science degree shaken by the tragedy. She realised that even when facts about the disproportionate effect of environmental injustices on Black and Brown communities were covered, “they’d brush over it and go back to talking about saving the salmon.” Eventually, she coined the term “intersectional environmentalism” – adapting Kimberlé Crenshaw’s framework of “intersectional feminism” to describe how “the same systems of oppression are at play in both environmental and racial justice sphere”. 
When she defined it in her viral Environmentalists for Black Lives Matter social media graphic last year, the term entered the mainstream, and helped grow the movement towards self-reflection about inclusivity in the environmental movement. As Thomas said in the Instagram post that started it all: “It is not an optional ‘add-on’ to environmentalism. It is unfair to opt in and out of caring about racial injustices when many of us cannot.” 
With Joe Biden nominating Michael Reagan to be the first ever Black head of the United States EPA (Environmental Protection Agency),  focus is returning to the overwhelming Whiteness of the environmental movement and its leadership. As Jessie Sitnick acknowledges, lack of representation in leadership leads to problems in reaching those audiences who are under-represented, thanks to “the inaccessibility of the language we use, the cultural references we make, the baked-in assumptions that what matters most to White mainstream environmentalists should resonate the same way with everyone else.”  A 2014 report from Green 2.0, a non-profit diversity initiative, found that, within participating environmental NGOs, 88 percent of staff and 95 percent of boards were White. 
This extreme lack of diversity stems from a lack of recruitment and inclusion in the environmental community, where, according to Dorceta Taylor, a professor of Environmental Sociology at the University of Michigan, some of the “white males that occupy the leadership positions…don’t even have environmental degrees” . Taylor urges people to “ get over the myth that students of colour are not qualified, they’re not educated enough, and they’re not taking the appropriate course work.” It is the responsibility of those in power to make room for the voices and perspectives needed to effectively fight issues of environmental injustice.
The overwhelming lack of consideration for the voices and experiences of Black, Brown and Indigenous people is nothing new. In 1982, Benjamin Chavis coined the term “environmental racism”, meaning“racial discrimination in environmental policy-making, the enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of communities of colour for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities, and the history of excluding people of colour from leadership of the ecology movements”.  He and others, including “father of environmental justice,” Dr. Robert Bullard, have investigated targeted and widespread policies which have caused concrete harm to communities of colour. For example, between the 1930s and 1978, 82 % of all of the city of Houston, Texas’ waste was dumped in Black neighbourhoods, despite only 25% of the population being Black. 
This is not an issue that is confined to the United States. For example, a 2018 Natural England and ONS report found that White Britons were nearly 20% more likely to regularly access green spaces on a regular weekly basis than their BAME** counterparts, while another report in 2019 found that BAME Britons were up to 29% more likely than their White compatriots to be exposed to particulate matter pollution.  As Thomas puts it, “the environmentalism that we have now that has been thought of as being “progressive” has only been progressive for one group of people and that’s not fair.”  Without a concrete focus on racial justice in the environmental movement, which is only possible by amplifying the voices of those affected, climate action will only end up exacerbating inequality around the world.
Beyond environmental racism, the mainstream environmental movement suffers from a case of severe cultural appropriation. From the White-washing of vegan and vegetarian diets in the media, despite the fact that three times as many non-White than White Americans identify as vegetarian,  to the many other sustainable practices co-opted from communities of colour and repackaged for the White mainstream, this trend of cultural appropriation and a lack of acknowledgment of the roots of sustainable practices feeds into systems of oppression and marginalisation without allowing for meaningful cross-cultural communication.
As long as White environmental activists continue to take what is convenient for them, without committing themselves to intersectional environmentalism, anti-racism, and listening to and amplifying the voices of Black, Brown and Indigenous environmentalists, climate action that is just and which serves all members of humanity will never be achieved.
* We have made an editorial decision to capitalise all terms denoting race (i.e. White, Black and Brown) as this highlights the fact that race is socially constructed. By choosing to capitalise the term White, we are choosing to acknowledge that Whiteness is not a neutral default or ‘natural’ category, while Blackness and Brownness are other. Instead, Whiteness is just as much a social created category. We realise that there is live debate surrounding this issue, and welcome your views on the matter. For more information on the debate, we recommend heading here and here. These are starting points, and there is much more information out there for those who are interested in learning more.
**An acronym used in the UK to refer to people from ‘Black and Ethnic Minority’ backgrounds. It is a heavily contested term (e.g. see here, here and here as starting points), but we use it here as this was the category used in the studies cited.
OCS Media Team
The latest in climate science and policy from the OCS team.