Conversations around climate change have never been more important. In the UK, however, they have been undermined by one issue: racial inequity. While it is usually people of colour, largely from the so-called Global South, who are on the frontlines of the climate emergency, those leading the climate change debate in Britain and key forums in the West are predominantly white and often occupy high-ranking positions in society.
This is unfortunate, particularly as western nations have increasingly diverse populations, and part of the solution to a problem as complex and widespread as climate change is to value and embrace the experiences of those suffering the greatest impact and encourage their input.
We live in a world where rivers are contaminated, oceans are filled with plastic, increasing temperatures are killing crops, glaciers are melting, ice caps are disintegrating, and extreme weather conditions are destroying communities that are already disadvantaged and suffer the most. Clearly, everyone has a role to play in preventing our planet’s hurtling destruction. Yet, the voices of those most affected remain largely unheard in the UK.
Western-led industrialisation has, for the most part, led to very high levels of prosperity around the globe, but it has also fuelled a number of injustices, including inequality of wealth. Industrialisation has, for instance, impacted those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change by way of famines, contaminated water sources and extreme weather conditions.
Bangladesh, the country of my birth, is currently suffering the worst floods in more than a century, leaving 4 million people stranded, their livelihoods wiped out, and families grieving the loss of loved ones.
Afghanistan, meanwhile, recently experienced its worst earthquake in 20 years, again destroying homes and lives. Bill McGuire, professor emeritus in geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, has explained the link between climate change and earthquakes, stating that as temperatures rise, the weight of the melting ice can push down on the Earth’s crust and trigger a quake.
There is also the link between colonialism and climate change, which is evident in Australia’s increasing bushfires. Researchers have shown that these fires have been amplified by the colonial displacement of indigenous people, along with their land management practices that used controlled burning to rejuvenate the land and prevent wildfires.
Modern-day slavery and environmental destruction, too, are linked. Slave labour is used in illegal deforestation, for example, and climate-induced migration makes people a target for traffickers who then trap migrants into a life of slavery.
Given all this, it is crucial that the debates and decision-making processes around climate change in the rich, industrialised West, which wields plenty of clout in international forums, include those who are most affected by this phenomenon.
There are, of course, several notable people from the developing world making a significant impact in the climate conversation from non-western countries.
One such activist is Zambia’s Veronica Mulenga, who raises awareness of environmental injustice and how climate change disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable. As she once rightly said: “People think you need to be an expert, and that's not true. The climate movement is for everyone. Anyone can join, and everyone has a role.”
Another inspirational “eco-feminist” is Vandana Shiva, director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Nature Resource Policy in Dehradun, India. Since founding her NGO Navdanya in 1987, she has preserved approximately 2,000 varieties of rice and established 122 seed banks across 22 Indian states.
Yet, at Cop26 in Scotland last autumn, Ms Mulenga noted that a lack of vaccines and funding available for African countries prevented many delegates and activists from taking part in the negotiations, including herself. “People still don’t believe there is a link between race and climate,” she said.
Reset Connect, the flagship green investment event of London Climate Action Week, took place recently. The event, described as “leading sustainability and net zero event for business, investors and innovators”, brought together the finance, business and government sectors to find shared solutions and funding. It had a huge line-up of experts, speakers and thought leaders – but more than 90 per cent of them were white.
Friends of the Earth, a UK-based environmental campaigning community, claims that Britain's environmental movement is “still overwhelmingly white and middle-class". It further states that we need a “diverse range of voices to solve global problems and achieve social justice".
A report recently published by the UK government's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs observed that the diversity among governing bodies looking after the British countryside is “extremely narrow”, being primarily of white, retired males.
Fortunately, some are mindful of this problem of inequity and trying to address it. The Archdeacon of Croydon in the UK, Dr Rosemarie Mallet, is a leading figure within the Church of England on climate change. Her aim is to give a voice to those who are keen to bring about change but fear the repercussions of doing so.
Other such figures need to step up, too. Climate change activism is a social justice issue and should not just be about protecting the wealthy countries, particularly in the industrialised West, and making decisions in absence of those most affected.
Leaders of these countries must increase endeavours to include the disadvantaged in their decision-making processes. A more inclusive approach is necessary towards designing policies that are fair, accessible and equitable in preserving our planet for future generations.