Climate justice requires racial justice

Eight lessons from UCLA Law human rights scholar E. Tendayi Achiume

February 1, 2023
E. Tendayi Achiume speaking at the United Nations
E. Tendayi Achiume speaking at the United Nations.

E. Tendayi Achiume recently concluded her five-year term as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. An international expert on human rights law, Achiume is the inaugural Alicia Miñana Professor of Law and former faculty director of UCLA Law’s Promise Institute for Human Rights.

During her tenure as U.N. Special Rapporteur, she held consultations and solicited information from leading activists and thinkers around the globe. She presented over a dozen reports to the U.N., and in her final report this fall, focused on the intersection of racial justice and climate justice – emphasizing that meaningful climate solutions must address both in tandem. Her official release of the report to the U.N. General Assembly was accompanied by a civil society launch organized by the Promise Institute; "Environmental Racism & Climate (In)Justice" brought Achiume’s report into conversation with perspectives on climate injustice from the Caribbean.

“Climate justice requires racial justice, and … racial justice requires climate justice,” she says.

Here, we present key takeaways from Achiume’s report:

  • The climate crisis is rooted in colonialism. Colonizers seized land rich in natural resources such as coal and oil, took those resources without compensating the native people, and then used those resources to fuel their own industries and enrich their own countries. That legacy persists and plagues us today. “At the center of the climate crisis are greenhouse gas emissions that are the product of centuries of extraction, industrialization, and industrial process,” Achiume writes. “Because climate change today is driven by the accumulation of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, historical emissions are an existential contemporary problem.” 
  • As the Global North pollutes, the Global South suffers. The countries that produce the most greenhouse gasses are rarely the same countries experiencing the worst effects of climate change and pollution. According to the report, an average U.K. citizen emits more carbon dioxide in two weeks than a resident of Malawi, Ethiopia, Uganda, Madagascar, Guinea or Burkina Faso will emit in a year. In Kabwe, Zambia, near an abandoned mine, more than 95% of children have elevated levels of lead in their blood. Small island states around the world face some of the harshest consequences of global warming, with some of their territory likely to be wiped out within the next 80 years. The report documents other equally heartbreaking examples.
  • We tend to pollute the places where racially and ethnically marginalized groups live. “Sacrifice zones,” a term coined in the Cold War era, refers to hotspots where people live in heavily polluted environments and experience devastating health effects as a result. As the report outlines, racially and ethnically marginalized groups disproportionately live in these sacrifice zones--in countries across the Global South and racially segregated areas in the Global North. For example, the stretch of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is also known in the U.S. as “Cancer Alley,” home to 150 petrochemical facilities, the nation’s highest cancer rates and disproportionate numbers of African Americans. In Ontario, Canada, a similar chemical valley surrounds the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, who suffer negative health consequences as a result. Based on these and other reports from around the world, Achiume argues that these spaces are better understood as “racial sacrifice zones.”
  • Gender, age and disability compound the issue. In addition to race, discrimination based on gender, age and disability also plays a role in how the climate crisis affects individuals. “Women in particular play important roles in rural and agricultural life, and they are typically on the frontline of environmental and climate-related human rights violations,” Achiume writes.
  • Standing up for climate justice can be dangerous. Vocal defenders of the environment are being targeted, facing political imprisonment or even death. Reports from India indicate climate activism has been criminalized in some cases, while Brazil and Nigeria both report ongoing murders of activists. 
  • What’s happening violates international human rights law. Agreements such as the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action offer protections against racial and climate injustices, as well as guidelines for correcting them. In addition, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples safeguards Indigenous peoples’ rights to protect their ancestral lands.
  • Global leaders don’t listen to the less powerful. Existing structures, even in the U.N., often prevent smaller, less wealthy nations from having their voices count. Achiume points out that U.N. climate reports are submitted only in English, and in highly technical language that can be difficult to translate. Additionally, smaller nations tend to send smaller negotiating teams to U.N. climate meetings. “This imbalance is magnified by the outsized economic capacity of Global North states, which was built in significant part through racist domination of the Global South, and allows the north to exert greater leverage on the Global South,” Achiume writes.
  • Proposed climate solutions can perpetuate racial injustice. Achiume warns that “dominant international approaches to governing environmental and climate issues amount to a doubling down on racial inequality and injustice.” For example, carbon capture programs, which remove and trap existing pollution from the air, tend to be proposed in existing racial sacrifice zones. Furthermore, many nations’ plans for green energy involve maintaining their “unsustainable levels of consumption” while continuing to rely on mining resources from the Global South.

“The predominant global responses to environmental crises are characterized by the same forms of systemic racism that are driving these crises in the first place,” Achiume concludes.  “Environmental, climate and racial injustice are the institutionalized status quo.”

Despite this bleak reality, Achiume offers reason for hope. Grassroots networks that forge transnational alliances are making an impact, she says, and deserve greater support and attention.

“In working on this report, I was most inspired by the vision and unrelenting creativity of racially marginalized communities in responding to ecological catastrophe that is not of their making,” Achiume says. “The report concludes with a call for global action to address climate injustice. These communities are producing vital knowledge that can and should chart the way towards climate justice, and towards global systems of interconnection that aren’t a threat to the very existence of humans.”

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