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Why is the green movement so white?

by
01 July 2022

People of colour are most affected by climate breakdown. Joe Ware talks to UK campaigners

Melanie Nazareth, at a climate-related demonstration in Oxford Street, London

Melanie Nazareth, at a climate-related demonstration in Oxford Street, London

THE Associated Press cropped the Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate out of a group photo in January 2020. The original image showed her with other campaigners, including the Swedish founder of the global school-strike movement, Greta Thunberg. The remaining teenage girls in the picture were all white.

The subsequent furore highlighted the lack of racial diversity in much of the climate movement. Most of the delegates — representing countries, NGOs, and businesses — at the COP26 climate summit in 2021 were white, even though climate change more acutely affects people of colour around the world.

Studies show that women are more likely than men to be affected by climate change. The UN says that 80 per cent of people displaced by climate change are women.

Research by Erica Chenoweth, a professor of political science at Harvard, based on a cross-national study of social movements from 1945 to 2014, suggests that the presence of women in these movements at high levels makes those campaigns more likely to succeed.

As Marcia Chatelain, Professor of History and African American Studies at Georgetown, points out, however, these contributions are often overlooked. “Across history, any time a movement has had black women at its helm or in its leadership — from Ida B. Wells and the Niagara movement to Ella Baker in the civil-rights movement — there have been sexist and racist attempts to undermine them.

“The most damaging impact of the sanitised and oversimplified version of the civil-rights story is that it has convinced many people that single, charismatic, male leaders are a prerequisite for social movements. This is simply untrue.”

 

BLACK and brown Christian women in the UK are working for change, and are well aware of the issues that they face. The Revd Grace Thomas is the Vicar of St Anne’s, Clifton, and St Thomas’s, Clifton Green, in Manchester, and one of the diocese’s environment officers. She recognises the lack of diversity in the climate movement.

She says: “I was in a Christian climate gathering not so long ago, where one person talked about how they had been going on marches and protests for years and, whilst they invited the black members of their congregation to join, none of them did — proving, in this person’s eyes, that black and brown people were not as committed to climate action.

Sarah Jane Nii-Adjei with black church leaders at COP26

“I pointed out that going on marches and protests, especially in the current legal climate, was a very different experience due to how black and brown people were disproportionately mistreated and discriminated against throughout all levels of the legal system.”

Activists are now concerned that, if passed, the Public Order Bill, announced by the Government in the Queen’s Speech, will worsen the situation, as new powers enable the police to crack down on public dissent. These measures were successfully removed from the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act in the House of Lords, but have returned in the new legislation.

 

FOR Bokani Tshidzu, a campaign officer for the charity Operation Noah, one of the main reasons is economic. Ms Tshidzu spent her early childhood in Zimbabwe, then came to the UK, and grew up on a council estate in London. She can understand why people like her parents would have struggled to overcome the barriers to getting involved in climate campaigning.

Bokani Tshidzu at a vigil at Church House

She says: “There are structural economic barriers. Turning up at weekly meetings is hard when you’re doing shift work with irregular hours. Growing up, my parents would have no time to go on protests. They spent all their time working to make ends meet.”

Ms Thomas says that the lack of inclusion in the climate movement reflects a deeper problem: “This is not just about the climate movement. This is a far deeper societal issue, and is an ongoing issue for the Church, too. There are deep historical, colonial, and institutional aspects.

“There is a level of distrust, hurt, and exhaustion amongst many global-majority-heritage people. I feel it myself, and have experienced exclusion and discrimination recently that has impacted on my own well-being. But there is plenty that can be done.”

Although it’s true that the climate crisis will affect everyone, Ms Thomas thinks that there is a danger of sidelining the voices of people of colour who experience the climate crisis most acutely. She says that this struck her during a recent online conference, during which Maria, an Ecuadorian climate activist, spoke. “It was clear how many people in the Zoom [call] were powerfully moved by her words. She was able to bring alive issues in a very real way, and, from the feedback we received, it was clear that she had a lasting impact on many delegates.

“It felt like something transformational had happened in that conference that went far beyond simplistic tokenism and box-ticking, that led to a far deeper understanding and appreciation of the reality of climate change in different settings.”

 

MELANIE NAZARETH, a member of the direct-action group Christian Climate Action, has observed a tension between inclusivity and white people who use their privilege to take action, such as members of Extinction Rebellion who risk arrest while trying to raise awareness of government and corporate inaction.

She says: “Yes, the UK climate movement is not diverse. On the one hand, there is a very real sense in which it is a matter of justice and equity that those who have power and privilege, who are primarily of the majority-white ethnicity here in the UK, are the people who should be seeking to address the issue.

Shilpita Matthews holding a sign at COP26

“We need more people from every ethnicity to be more involved in speaking up against what is happening to the climate. However, it is also the case that the unequal power dynamic is reinforced if those people assume the roles of agenda-setters, decision-makers, and action-takers, and there is no agency given to the already marginalised communities who are most affected by the issue. Working with that tension is something the UK climate movement is working through.”

Ms Nazareth, who attends All Saints’, East Sheen, in London, recently set up Beyond Fossil Fuels Together, which seeks to create a space for public acts of witness, direct action, and protest, such as public prayer vigils.

She said that making clearer links between climate change and its impact on people of colour around the world could help to encourage engagement: “I think a stronger articulation of the message of global climate justice, and a clearer acknowledgement of the connections between the climate crisis and racial justice may be more fertile soil for activists of colour.”

 

THE lack of understanding of the racial impact of climate change was underlined by a ComRes poll in 2020, which showed that twice as many British people thought that white people were the racial group most affected by climate change in the world. In the poll, only 15 per cent of respondents said that black people were the most climate-vulnerable ethnic group; 30 per cent said white people.

A study in March 2022 by the Mayor of London’s office found that black, Asian, and minority-ethnic Londoners are more likely to be affected by the impact of the climate crisis. The risk of flooding, exposure to toxic air, heat risk, and limited access to green spaces were all more prevalent in areas where more than half the population was from minority-ethnic communities.

For Bokani Tshidzu, this was not a surprise. She says: “It’s revealing about who people think need protection, and who are vulnerable. It goes back a long way: black people have often been seen as different, as physically stronger, with less need to be protected. For example, there’s a perception that black boys are people to be scared of.”

The Revd Grace Thomas

Ms Tshidzu, aged 34, experienced this sentiment while on a march outside the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow. She said: “I was holding a placard with a wooden handle. Someone told me to be careful of avoiding getting splinters, and then said: ‘but your hands are tougher than ours.’”

Ms Tshidzu became involved in the climate movement in 2016, after attending a grammar school and studying at university. “I realised how people like me, but without the privileges I have, are experiencing the climate crisis,” she said. “In London, some areas are more polluted than others. It’s often neighbourhoods with larger proportions of black and brown people that are likely to have motorways through them.”

But she thinks that the Church has great potential to unite the climate movement and also to make a significant contribution to turning the tide. “Our faith is our secret weapon,” she said. “Movements can get exhausted, but our faith is a refuge and a deep well to draw from. There’s something so special about activism within the foundation of a spiritual tradition.

“It’s no wonder that Christians have been at the forefront of some of the great social changes in history, be it Archbishop Desmond Tutu or Martin Luther King. In Jesus, we have an influence and an example.”

 

THE global character and long-term perspective of the Church give it an opportunity to be prophetic in a way that governments and business cannot manage, Shilpita Matthews believes.

Aged 25, Ms Matthews is a member of the Young Christian Climate Network, and attends All Souls’, Langham Place, in London. She has been aware of the impact that natural disasters can have on the world’s poorest people, having experienced the aftermath of the 2004 Asian tsunami.

“The Church can play a prophetic role in tackling climate change by serving those who are most affected, and committing to being good stewards of creation through actions such as divestment from fossil fuels and investing in nature,” she says.

“This includes partnering with the global Church, who are on the front line of the climate crisis.

“Whether it be the air pollution in Delhi, my home city, where 75 per cent of children experience breathlessness, or climate refugees in Jordan, which has one of the highest refugee populations in the world, driven by factors such as drought and food shortages, millions of people are being pushed back into poverty because of climate change.”

Ms Matthews says that speaking up about climate change is central to her faith: “In the Bible, Jesus tells us the most important commandments are to love God, and to love our neighbours. Addressing climate change is vital to both — honouring God by being good stewards of his creation, and loving our global neighbours who are hit first and worst by the climate crisis.”

 

THERE is evidence that action on climate change is becoming a growing concern for black-majority churches in Britain. Sarah-Jane Nii-Adjei is the climate-justice church programme manager for black-majority Churches at Christian Aid.

She has been disappointed by the lack of exposure given to the views of black church leaders, who can offer “unique perspectives, connections, and lived experiences to ecumenical conversations and actions for climate justice.

“But I’m seeing this issue gaining traction among black-majority churches. We’re seeing black church leaders using their platform, both to bring about conversations within their churches, and also encourage their community to use their voices to speak truth to power and demand action from government.”

For Ms Thomas, there is much that Christians, from all backgrounds, can do to act on climate change and gain insight into the realities of one another’s lives. “Sometimes, these issues feel so huge that it overwhelms us into non-action, or despair. We can’t ‘fix’ everything; nor are we meant to.

“As the Romero Prayer says, we are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs, and this means that it is not within our individual gift to save the world. But, nevertheless, we can take the small steps and the small actions that can make a huge difference.

“The conversation with someone, the tree-planting activity, the prayer event, the letter to the MP — so many times, it has been from these small, faithful acts that movements have been created.

“I think that’s where progress can really begin — in the listening and learning of each other’s stories, and the commitment to honour them by allowing ourselves to be changed by them.”

Ms Tshidzu puts it this way: “We have a responsibility to listen better, act more generously with love, to see injustice and speak up. Christians are incredibly powerful. The changes you make within your church, within your diocese, within the national Church, can change society.”
 

Joe Ware is Senior Climate Journalist at Christian Aid.

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