Students take part in a Save the Planet protest. AFP
This week environmental protest group Extinction Rebellion, with the help of veteran broadcaster David Attenborough , has pushed the issue of climate change to the top of the news agenda. One section of society, however, are conspicuous in their absence, both in terms of those involved in the direct action and in the way we’re talking about the climate crisis: people of colour.
Unfortunately, this is nothing new for the environmental movement. In 2015 at a climate march in London, the Wretched of the Earth bloc — made up of indigenous, black and brown people on the frontlines of climate change — was replaced by a group of people dressed in animal headgear. They were told their anti-capitalist, anti-colonial message wasn’t “positive” enough, and their demand for the recognition that communities across the Global South are “the first to die, the first to fight” from climate impacts was censored.
In the case of Extinction Rebellion, history is now repeating itself. Over the past week the group has staged creative direct actions and takeovers of key London sites — which is critical for escalating the urgency with which climate change is tackled. Central to their mission, however, is a strategy of mass arrests. “Arrests aren’t happening quickly enough”, said Extinction Rebellion’s co-founder Roger Hallam during protests last November. During this round of actions, over 700 arrests had been made at the time of writing. Meanwhile, the group’s social media accounts even go so far as to praise the police.
Many have rightly critiqued this stance for alienating working class communities and people of colour, and failing the cause of anti-racism. People of colour do not simply face far higher risks when dealing with the police, black and brown people die at their hands.
This year marks 20 years since the MacPherson inquiry, launched to investigate the murder of Stephen Lawrence, and labelled the police’s response as “institutionally racist”. In those 20 years, it seems very little has changed. Of 17 cases of deaths in police custody where force was used in 2017-8, 47 per cent of those who died were black. For Extinction Rebellion to deliberately target arrests and play up to the idea that they are “quite nice people” (as opposed, presumably, to the “feral underclasses”) is not just alienating to those on the receiving end of state violence — it is downright insulting.
However, Extinction Rebellion’s tactics betoken a deeper problem in its stance to race and politics. They rightly proclaim we are in a moment of crisis, and tell us to “rebel for life”, but say the climate crisis is “beyond politics”. What they’re missing — or at least aren’t stating nearly clearly enough — is that the climate crisis is the result of neoliberal capitalism, and a global system of extraction, dispossession and oppression. Just 100 companies are responsible for 71 per cent of all emission — often that’s fossil fuel companies extracting profit from the Global South and committing human rights abuses along the way.
What’s more, it is people in countries across the Global South who are already on the frontlines of climate change impacts. This isn’t just about “our children”, as Extinction Rebellion have suggested — it’s about real people now, being displaced, being exploited, and dying. The group demands the “truth”, whatever that might be, and a citizens’ assembly, but people across the Global South have been making demands of us for decades: that we repay our climate debt, honour our climate financing obligations to countries across the Global South, stop the corporate capture of trade and climate talks, and commit to radically reducing emissions to stay well below a 1.5 degree limit of average global warming.
It’s high time we listened. These demands entail a total transformation of our economy, to make it serve the common good and not the interests of the 1 per cent. This transformation can both address racial and social injustices at home and abroad, and create a fairer, happier, more prosperous future for us all. The demand of a Green New Deal, taken up by campaign group Labour for a Green New Deal — of which I am a member — alongside the youth climate strikers, sees the fight against climate catastrophe as inextricably linked to the fight against capitalism and against racial and social injustices. And recognises that this fight is global.
So too are our solutions. A Green New Deal can build a more equal and more prosperous society at home, with democratic ownership of industry, utilities and more, and mass investment in transport, care sectors and left-behind communities. But it will fail if it does not have the principle of internationalism at its heart.
The reason the climate movement must go beyond Britain’s borders isn’t just because justice demands we support the countries our country grew rich from pillaging. The fact is that without paying our historical debts to Global South countries in the form of the finance and technology transfers, these countries won’t also be able to play their part in the global decarbonisation we need to avert climate catastrophe.
Anti-racism and internationalism need to be central to every environmental movement, whether we’re working within political parties or building pressure on the streets.
Labour for a Green New Deal will not just be demanding a radical Labour government takes drastic climate action, we will be demanding racial and global justice are political priorities. It’s only this way that we’ll be able to win.
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