Climate Justice and Social Justice – Part 2: White Supremacy and Carbon Colonialism

(Cover art by ChicksForClimate on Instagram)

Just a quick note before beginning this post, thank you to the wonderful BIPOC environmentalists at Alphabets.abc, and GreenDreamerKamea for helping with the main flesh and information in this post! As a white person, with this post, I aim to disseminate and amplify the voices of BIPOC environmentalists who are already saying and voicing the opinions, experiences, and information below. I fully agree with and support these people and their voices and urge others to amplify their voices as well. You can start by finding and following them through the links above!

In Part 1, we learned about the founding of the Environmental Justice movement by Hazel M. Johnson and how deeply entrenched social justice is with environmental justice. Now, let’s examine how white supremacy works in the context of the climate crisis to exacerbate climate change and cause disproportionate effects to BIPOC communities.

Everyone on Earth is and will be impacted by climate change, but not everyone will feel this burden proportionally. This is because of the effects of environmental racism and carbon colonialism. We don’t all breathe the same air, have access to the same clean water, or experience the land we live on in the same way.

Environmental racism is a term coined by Bejamin Chavis, a Black civil rights leader and activist. It is a form of systemic racism that disproportionately burdens people of color and women with higher rates of health issues due to global and local policies and practices that force them to live in proximity to hazardous waste sources. This means that our experience of climate change dramatically differs depending on race, ethnicity, gender, and where we live.

In Los Angeles County, over half a million people live within a half-mile of an active oil well, exposing them to dangerous, carcinogenic chemicals, like benzene that are linked to serious health issues such as asthma and cancer. Of these people, 92% of them are people of color, and that is no coincidence or accident. In the 1930s, California drastically expanded its oil production, producing a quarter of the world’s oil. As this was happening, real estate agents used the racist practice of redlining to force communities of color to live in the toxic backyards of the oil rigs, resulting in generations of lifelong illnesses and health issues directly related to the growing fossil fuel industry.

In Flint, Michigan, what has come to be known as the Flint Water Crisis, occurred when the city failed to treat its municipal water system after changing water sources, exposing hundreds of people to toxic lead levels. Over 100 000 (mostly POC) of Flint’s residents complained that their water was undrinkable, cloudy, foul-smelling, and tasting of chemicals. These complaints were completely ignored by government officials.

In Canada, 41 First Nations communities, are still under boil water advisories, with almost half of them having been in place for more than a decade. In 2015, the federal government promised access to clean, drinkable water for all First Nations Communities by the end of 2020, but has failed to do so. This is not due to budget problems or lack of available infrastructure. The government had no issues paying for and constructing pipelines that cross Indigenous lands and a humungous 150-year anniversary party, but cannot provide basic needs to its country’s First Peoples.

These examples are not coincidences or accidents, they are examples of is blatant environmental racism at its finest.

Carbon colonialism is when wealthy countries (the global north) claim land in developing countries (the global south) to use for carbon offset projects. This practice is essentially environmental racism on a global scale. It is exploitative, dishonest, and is an inadequate response to the urgent climate crisis.

Carbon offsetting projects (often in the form of afforestation projects) can destabilize already struggling communities by reducing their clean water supply, eliminating growing and grazing lands, and creating barriers to firewood access, and more. As a result, many people are forced to leave their homes and their land in order to make room for these afforestation projects while being poorly or not at all compensated. Companies that run these projects pay only a tiny fraction of what they will earn in the carbon trading market to acquire the land in developing countries. Therefore, these poorer nations miss out on all the economic benefits that come from such projects and more money stays in the pockets of the already-rich exploiter. A similar phenomenon to carbon colonialism is “green colonialism.” This is when Indigenous lands are claimed by the government as protected areas, conservation parks, or designated reforestation projects, preventing them from accessing their ancestral territories to hunt, fish, or just simply live.

Carbon offsetting projects in developing countries give wealthy countries loopholes through which they can meet their emissions reduction commitments without actually making changes. they are essentially outsourcing the burden of reducing emissions to poorer countries and reaping all the benefits in the process.

Although carbon sequestration is important for fighting the climate crisis, market-based strategies alone will never be enough. They are merely band-aids, not true healing and reparation. True healing will only come from holistic and integrated solutions that directly challenge the culture of overconsumption, degenerative farming, centralization of power, and economic injustice.

With the rise of the Environmental Justice movement, we can shine a light on the legacy of systems of oppression, violence, murder, and colonialism. Dismantling white supremacy (and all systems of oppression) is essential for the planet. We must recognize how white supremacy and other systems of oppression are embedded in the exploitation of the planet and its people and other species.

In part 3, we will examine how the Patriarchy and toxic masculinity are also working to fuel the destruction of the planet.

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