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Climate change is an issue of racial injustice

30 July 2021

Will we go along with this injustice, in the way that previous generations enabled slavery and empire, asks Jeremy Williams

STRUCTURAL racism is not a bad habit that comes and goes, depending on whether the president is Black or White — or orange. It is built into the foundations of society, and the origins of the inequality may lie in decisions that were made long before we were born — decisions to invade or to occupy, policies around housing or employment, or the wording of a constitution. A key feature of structural racism is that it is laid down over time. It is racism with deep roots.

There is, of course, some overlap between these manifestations of racism. The problem with structural racism is that the explicit prejudice may have occurred long ago. The policies that purposefully excluded people of colour may have been abolished, but they have a long echo. It might look like the problem is solved now that Black and White people can sit next to each other in Starbucks, but the long-term consequences of discrimination continue.

Advantages such as education or home ownership are passed on across generations. I have only been able to buy a house because my grandparents bought theirs in the 1960s. If my grandfather’s surname was Wanyama instead of Williams, there’s a good chance I’d still be renting.

Structural racism is embedded in the society we are born into. It can look like “racism without racists”, as the Puerto Rican sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva puts it, because it does not need visible racists to perpetuate it.

This is the way in which climate change is racist.


THERE is no committee of White people plotting to oppress Africa by disrupting the climate, but we can identify racism by its outcomes. The climate crisis will harm people of colour most, while they have contributed the least to the problem. The reasons for this are structural and historical.

Because of these historical power imbalances, racism has already shaped the world’s response to climate change. When action is delayed or when targets are weakened, it is the world’s Black and Brown populations that suffer greater harm. Weak climate targets are racist policies. This is why the racial injustice
of climate change can’t be glossed over in order to avoid difficult conversations. If it remains invisible in the climate-change debate, then racism will continue to shape responses to the climate emergency.

If you click on your favourite news outlet and look for the latest on climate change, you are likely to find it under the “environment” category. Politically, it usually comes under the remit of the environment minister. The big green organisations come to mind, with their iconic imagery of melting icebergs and polar bears. And, yes, climate change is causing chaos in the natural world. But it is also a human crisis and a major justice issue.

There is a huge racial dimension to climate change. That’s not something that comes up very often in mainstream debate. There have been no bestselling books on the topic. It remains in the margins, in academic texts, and in radical activist circles. A recent survey revealed that the majority of British people are unaware that climate change affects people of colour more — though a majority of Black respondents did know this.

If we were to fast-forward 50 or 100 years, perhaps that will have changed. Will our grandchildren look back in disbelief at our attitudes, the way we look back at those who condoned or ignored slavery?

Activists from previous generations see a continuity between the struggles of the past and those of today. Gerald Durley is an African American pastor, now retired. In the 1960s, he joined the campaign for civil rights, and was there in the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial when Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., made his famous speech. “I never could have conceived of becoming a champion for climate change,” he writes. “But, I have had a change of heart. Climate change is a civil-rights issue.”


IF IT is true that climate change is predominantly caused by White people, and disproportionately suffered by people of colour, then we are in the early stages of an epic racial atrocity, one that will echo through world history for centuries to come. Like the segregation that Durley and King opposed, it demands that we take a stand. What will our own part be? Will we silently go along with it, the way the silent complicity of previous generations enabled slavery, empire, or apartheid? Or will we throw our energies into the climate struggle?

The American journalist Wen Stephenson is a regular reporter on the front lines of climate activism. In his book What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other, he argues that climate change is a defining moral struggle: “If the abolition of slavery was the great human, moral struggle of the 18th and 19th centuries, then climate justice is the great human, moral struggle of our own time.” There is no neutral ground in the kind of moral struggle Stephenson describes. Everyone will have to decide where they stand.

This is an edited extract from
Climate Change is Racist: Race, privilege and the struggle for climate justice, by Jeremy Williams, published by Icon Books at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop for £9). Jeremy Williams is also the editor of Time to Act (SPCK) (Books, 21 August 2020).

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2 July 2022
Bringing Down the Mighty: Church, Theology and Structural Injustice
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