Climate Change Movements – Why Are They White Dominated?

Assistant Features Editor Sagal Hassan is an MSc student in Global Affairs and a recent International Relations and History graduate. She is interested in history, international development and politics particularly regarding East Africa and the MENA region.

[Featured Image: Extinction Rebellion protestors at a rally with their signature bright green, pink, and white signs.]

During extinction rebellion’s recent mass protests at tube stations, I asked myself why are many climate change movements led by middle class white people despite it disproportionately effecting people of colour and indigenous people in the Global South?

The Extinction Rebellion, founded in 2008 by a small group of British academics, is one of the UK’s highest profile environmental group with their main aim being to cause “major disruption” in major cities around the world. They have since portrayed themselves as an organisation which is a decentralised, “apolitical” group outside of mainstream environmental movements. Their activism has helped raise concern over climate issues to a record high making it the “third most pressing issue facing the nation” according to YouGov.

The environmental group has met with governmental officials and continues to promise more civil obedience until its three demands are met by the government; for the government to tell the truth regarding the urgency of climate change, to act now and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025 and for the government to create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate justice.

This all sounds great, so why are people heavily critical of the movement? This is mainly due to its lack of diversity.

“Whiteness of green” and “a white middle-class ghetto” in the words of Craig Bennett is what mainstream environmental activism has often been referred to as and this is no different for the Extinction Rebellion movement. It reflects the needs and promotes the ideas forwarded by the white middle-class over the needs of those who most are disproportionately affected by climate change. This is embodied in the fact that studies have shown Green NGOs were the second least diverse of all sectors in the United Kingdom.

One Extinction Rebellion spokesperson, Rupert Read argued “net environmental footprint increased by migrants”. Not only is this blatantly xenophobic and perhaps even racist but this ignores the largest role in carbon footprint, capitalism and the cooperation’s of the west. This misplaced placement of migrants being the number one reason for why climate change is increasing rapidly is highly irresponsible. Extinction Rebellion needs to put this attention towards the top 100 companies who are responsible for over 70% of the worlds global greenhouse gas emissions if any serious changes are wanted to be made.

Furthermore, the Extinction Rebellion movement are encouraging people to get arrested to bring light to their cause with 1,000 arrests occurring in this October alone. However, this alienates many people of the colour from the movement. Why you may ask? Two words: police brutality. For those who are ethnic minorities, especially those who are black, and those who are on visas, getting arrested in the name of climate change is simply not an option. The police shall undoubtedly treat us differently to our white counterparts.

In an open letter, The Wretched of the Earth who are a grassroots environmental group and are focused and are led by BME and indigenous peoples, stated “many of us live with the risk of arrest and criminalisation”. The Extinction Rebellion group responded claiming it is essentially okay for such communities to risk arrest as “most prison officers are black and do not wish to give you a hard time”. This is in fact untrue and statistics show 93% of prison officers are white. Although Extinction Rebellion have since apologised for their highly insensitive comment, this highlights how unaware they truly are of their privilege and how something must change within this group to include minorities.  

There is also the issue of class in climate activism. Despite the Extinction Rebellion movement claiming they are a group for everyone and the group “needs to be safe for the most marginalised” this is not translated in reality. They alienate the working class and this was evident in last week’s protests targeting a nationalised public transport service in London’s poorest borough, Newham. Many, especially those on social media, saw this as an unfair attack on regular people, who play a minimal role in the increasing danger of climate change, and just want to make a living. 

In addition, the futuristic nature of this movement ignores the lived realities of those living in the Global South. Climate change is not only a threat to our future but it is also something many across the world are experiencing currently. This is evident in the floods Somalia has recently been hit with, the approximately one million people dying a year in Africa along due to air pollution, typhoons across South East Asia among countless other cases.

Extinction Rebellion has been undoubtedly a key reason for why many are now aware of the dangers of climate change and the increasing need to act upon it now. Yet, this movement, like many others, have continued to exclude ethnic minorities and the working class and this is something that needs to be worked on. Perhaps working with environmental groups such The Wretched of the Earth or Black Lives Matter UK in order to achieve true diversity and inclusion of other voices who are most effected by climate change could be something they should consider. 

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