Climate Justice is Impossible Without Racial Justice

Bart Shteinman - Politics & Economics

2018 Environmental Justice Protest in Cancer Alley, image supplied by Julie Dermansky

Few places on Earth speak to as many of our manifold global crises as does St. John the Baptist County, Louisiana. Fifty kilometres north of New Orleans, and betwixt endless swampland, the string of mostly Black communities is still dotted with the manors of former slave plantations. 


Yet, looming taller and more ominous than any Confederate statue is another monument to racism’s enduring legacy. Dominating St John and its surrounding counties, known matter-of-factly as ‘Cancer Alley’, is a vast array of polluting petrochemical plants and refineries that dwarf the fenceline communities backed up against them. It should not surprise us that a politically and economically disenfranchised community would be chosen as a ‘sacrifice zone’ to host a fossil fuel economy’s belching tailpipe. Now with decades of pollutants contaminating their lungs, it is even less surprising why this rural parish had at one stage the highest per-capita death tally in the United States.  It is as if all the rivers of global injustice – racism and inequality, climate change and the coronavirus crisis – find their estuary in this corner of the Mississippi Delta. 


Intersections of racial subjugation and environmental destruction are no coincidence. Whatever the form, an economic and political system that is driven by extractivism functions by devaluing life; commodifying the parts it can profit from – and sacrificing those it cannot. 


In the face of this, the mainstream environmental movement in the West has been, for most of its 150-year history, implicitly exclusionary to people of colour. Even worse, from its birth in the late 1800s, it has been frequently complicit in racialized oppression, from the expulsion of Indigenous Peoples from America’s National Parks to the neo-colonial enclosure of land in the Global South for dubious ‘carbon offsets’.


Yet the ‘Green’ movements pale tint stands at odds with the racialisation of climate injustice. Communities of colour make up a disproportionate share of frontline communities that are already facing the escalating ravages of environmental destruction. Conversely, European and settler-colonial countries have accounted for the overwhelming majority of historical GHG emissions, and remain among the most polluting countries per capita. 


Moreover, in the search for solutions for our planetary crises, we need look no further than those so often overlooked. Climate Justice lies in the wisdom of Indigenous Peoples, and its course runs through the leadership of – and allyship with – people of colour in the West and Global South. 




Systems of racial and environmental subjugation can only be expunged by reaching for their roots –roots so often hidden beneath a surface of ignorance and denial. This requires tracing back along the legacies of empire, slavery and colonialism. As European empires proliferated and expanded in the 18th and 19th centuries, so too did the warped mythos of racism. Like new settlements on an ideological frontier, pseudo-sciences of eugenics and racial biology sprung up to justify the subjugation and enslavement of non-European bodies. Not coincidentally, these racist ideologies coincided with the legal falsehoods of terra nullius and colonial treatymaking, which legitimated the theft of supposedly ‘uncultivated’ indigenous lands. From the Americas to Africa, and from British Columbia to Australia, the ships that set sail carrying invaders and disease to Indigenous peoples returned full to the brim with natural wealth – and human bodies – stolen from colonised lands. 


Indeed, these twin exploitations of colonialism –the subjugation of racialized peoples and the extraction of land resources – were operationally and ideologically tied together. In the run up to the American Civil War slave-holding states like Mississippi declared their secession to defend “the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world”. This ‘material interest’ was the surplus labour of enslaved Black bodies, put to work on stolen Indigenous lands. Moreover, it was understood to be an “imperious law of nature” that “none but the Black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun” that hung over what was then Mississippi cotton fields, and now Cancer Alley. The resultant ‘King Cotton’ provided the cheap fabric that underwrote the Industrial Revolution taking place in English textile mills, a course of history that has returned environmental devastation to those from whom it owes its economic wealth. 


In our current age, the violent collisions of racism and resource extraction have only become more brutally visible. Indigenous peoples represent just 6% of the world population, but manage or hold tenure over 25% of all the world’s land (and 40% of all ecologically intact landscapes). Facing systematic marginalisation and left to hold the frontline against further encroachments on nature, it is sadly of no surprise to see the same old patterns of racially justified violence and theft. According to a study in Nature, between 2002 and 2017, 1,558 people in 50 countries were killed for defending their environments and land, mostly in Latin America, and between 30-40% were First Nations peoples. The frontier wars of colonialism never ended, the invaders have simply traded cavalry and galleons for bulldozers and pipelines. 


Now, as before, ecologically destructive extractivism is not some eternal battle between a monolithic ‘man’ against ‘nature’. Rather, its extremes are a modern pathology, most effectively orchestrated by profiteering interlopers that have all the violent tools and ideologies necessary to displace an autochthonous community. Ecocide’s greatest crimes go beyond the devaluation of the natural world as a thing to be eaten, burned or cleared. In its racialized form, extractivism goes so far as to throw select groups of human beings into the fire.





We can figuratively chart the full variety of linkages between racial injustice and ecological destruction – and their remedies – along the four classical elements of nature.



We’ve already elaborated on how racialized violence enables the theft and extraction of Indigenous lands. Thus, protecting those remaining two-fifths of intact environments from an environmental and climate perspective requires an awareness and defence of First Nations’ rights to their lands. In Australia, the Aboriginal Carbon Foundation is using traditional land management to reduce bushfires and retain carbon in the land, paid for via the country’s carbon markets. In the future, we can expect a warming planet to raise the stakes of deforestation to those with the privilege not to suffer its immediate violence. In place of the silent forests created by conventional tree-planting, sustainable reforestation has much to learn from the more carefully attuned methods of Indigenous forest management. 

Image Supplied by Aboriginal Carbon Foundation


For too long, First Nations peoples have been the object of white environmentalists patronising and misguided romanticisation. White environmentalists must recognise the practical wisdom and capacities of those that managed to preserve their environments – as compared to those that are only now, belatedly, coming to grips with sustainability. 



Indigenous rights to water are a lesser known but indispensable element of these challenges. In arid Australia, the privatisation and commercialisation of water by multinational agri-businesses has seen a massive transition in its southern food-bowl - the Murray Darling Basin. Irrigators of water-intensive cash crops, like cotton, have bought up and in some cases stolen water from the drying Darling-Baaka river, to which the Barkandji people rely physically, mentally and spiritually for their nourishment.

Map of NSW showing the Barkandji Tradition Owners Native Title claim area. Graphic supplied by MDPI.


Amidst a warming planet and escalating droughts, many countries may see the logic in emulating Indigenous practices for water sustainability. These often include understanding river system’s indivisibility, their interconnection with larger ecological and hydrological systems and their social and cultural value. In New Zealand, the government followed Indigenous Maori custom to make the unprecedented step of recognising the Whanguani river as a legal person. The Barkandji are currently fighting a campaign under the Native Title system for First Nations Rights to Water. With the Adani Carmichael Mine licensed to draw 12.5 billion litres of water to wash its coal, and the extension of coal mining to under Sydney’s water catchment, it is time we replenish society’s appreciation for water with these long-silenced voices. 



Returning to the concealed crimes of Cancer Alley, the mainstream environmental movement is beginning to acknowledge how air pollution is enabled by racial extractivism. The legal permission to pollute any common space is not an ‘accident’, but a highly lucrative resource for cost-shifting and profit-maximising. It is the function of institutional racism to permeate injustice through the intersections of race, class and other points of oppression, as described previously with Cancer Alley. Industries have and continue to exploit indifferent governments and disenfranchised communities to open polluting facilities in minority neighbourhoods, avoiding the ire of more powerful members of the majority group. 

Graphic supplied by Kimberly Terrell, Tulane Environmental Law Clinic


To prove the precision of these air attacks, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, people of colour in the US experience 66% more air pollution than white Americans. In Australia, the intersection of class, race and wealth in its major cities function to deprive less advantaged and propertied racial groups access to clean air and green-space.


On an international scale, we can even see the shifting of polluting industries and waste to low-income nations in the Global South as an extension of this strategy of racial externalisation. Ultimately, if we are to be successful in mobilizing humanity in a struggle for a right to clean air and a clean economy, white environmental activists needs to practice allyship with those groups in society most acutely deprived of it.  



Ultimately, it is in the blazing furnace of fossil fuels wherein racial extractivism’s most pernicious injustices are forged. The Industrial Revolutions that are now hurtling humanity towards its current hour of climactic reckoning began in Europe and North America, the fruits of which have never been equitably extended to the Global South. As represented in the graphic below, the carbon emissions accumulated in the atmosphere overwhelmingly represent the excesses of European and North American industrialization. 

Graphic supplied by Max Roser, Our World in Data


Once again, these revolutions were interwoven with colonialism and racialised extractivism. For instance, the slave economy in the West Indies underpinned Britain’s early industrialisation. Nascent attempts at industrialisation elsewhere, such as India, were brutally and intentionally suppressed The added cruelty of this inequality is that it is in the Global South wherein the catastrophes of the climate crisis will continue to be the most dramatic. As I write this, a third of Bangladesh is flooded and millions have been displaced. From desertification in the Sahel region of Africa to the submersion of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, it is the warmer climates in Africa, southern Asia and the Middle East that are most at threat. 


Advanced economies are certainly not immune to the ravages of climate change, the most recent Australian and Californian bushfires attest to that. However, they are advantaged by having the collective financial means to weather the less extreme projections of temperature rises, a wealth that was, of course, accrued through climate-wrecking industrialisation and consumerism. A well-off American and European can adapt to heatwaves with air conditioners, and move homes to escape floods. Neither can be so easily be said for the five billion people barely surviving on $10 dollars a day or less.


As Covid-19 has shown, the political institutions of rich countries (with the exception of Trump’s America) can indeed manage and mitigate the unfolding economic and social damage of these crises, while those in the Global South are likely to be overwhelmed and destabilised. With billions of racialised peoples facing impending catastrophe, a denial of the climate crisis simply becomes a denial that their lives matter. White environmentalists must recognise that rectifying global racial inequalities – between a mostly European-descendent rich world and everyone else – is a necessity for protecting all lives endangered by Climate Change.  




Facing such despondent times, beset with the multi-headed leviathan of our present global crises, there remains a wide field of futures still open to us. The unyielding determination of environmental racism’s victims in pursuit of justice should be a beacon to us all. Rising mass consciousness of anti-racism and the climate emergency suggests, perhaps, this is happening already. 


Even so, anti-racist environmentalism requires more than the attentive listening of well-meaning white people. It is imperative that we centre marginalised voices in our discourse, make resistance against environmental racism a priority and repair the underrepresentation of people of colour in our leadership. We will not preserve the earth with black boxes on Instagram. 


To those still sceptical or despondent, I offer an optimistic warning. Paradoxically, it is within the existential stakes that we are now faced with that a chance for justice truly resides. The ‘low estimates’ of temperature rises are a catastrophe for people of colour, but the ‘high estimates’ are a death sentence for us all. In the form of the climate crisis, racial extractivism has mutated and metamorphosed into a monster so large that, at last, it truly threatens us all. To draw on the ever relevant James Baldwin, speaking on racism in 1953: 


“People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state on innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.”



Written by Bart Shteinman

Bart is an activist and current student at the University of Sydney doing a Bachelor of Arts and Economics. A self-described entrepreneurial socialist, Bart is gripped by the contradictions between capital, democracy and ecology that have generated the climate crisis, and how unifying them might regenerate our world.

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