7 August 2020

Racial justice is part of climate justice

All summer, protests have spread across the world calling for racial justice and for organisations – from all sectors and levels of government – to take action to combat racism. These protests have made several things clear, including that racial justice is a critical component of climate justice and fighting climate change.

Discussions on race often point to the fact that there is no biological basis to distinguish races. Although this is true, racial justice advocates point out that humans have, through social constructions, created races and perpetuate oppression on the basis of race. Calling for racial justice does not, thereby, affirm that biological race exists, but rather acknowledges that the social concept of race has very real and concrete impacts on Black, Indigenous and People of Colour, which must be addressed as a fundamental justice issue.

ICLEI Europe stands firmly in solidarity with those facing racial oppression in Europe and across the globe. We condemn race-based oppression. Combatting racial oppression is right for its own sake, and is necessary to holistically address climate change.

This most recent wave of global anti-racism action was prompted by the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis (USA). But, race-based violence and oppression is not solely an “American problem.” Racism exists throughout Europe. Europeans understand this: thousands of locals have taken to the streets in cities – including ICLEI Member Cities – spanning Belgium, Croatia, Germany, Poland, Portugal, and the United Kingdom, to name just a few. In June, the European Commission itself declared that “Black lives matter,” and condemned white supremacy “in all its forms”.

Centuries of systemic racist policies and practices – such as colonialism, segregation, and obstructing access to economic and political opportunities – have led Black, Indigenous and People of Colour across global contexts to be more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. In fact, race is the strongest determinant of “unequal distribution of environmental pollution burdens between different groups of people”.

Research has also shown that Black communities, due in part to housing segregation, are disproportionately exposed to poor urban air quality. Urban landfills and toxic waste are disproportionately dumped in Black neighbourhoods. And, the Roma minority in many European countries will be disproportionately hit by the negative effects of climate change, including intensified floods, heat waves, and decreased drinking water quality. Furthermore, majority white European countries are disproportionately responsible for climate change, while majority non-white countries are largely facing the most intense impacts of climate change.

When climate change unequally impacts People of Colour, climate and racial justice become inextricably linked, such that fighting climate change can directly support the fight for racial equality.

Applying an environmental justice lens means looking at action against climate change and the ecological crisis with a view to the compounding risks faced by non-white communities. It also asks us to look at the systemic factors that lead People of Colour to bear the burden of climate change.

In our current, growth-based economic system – which relies on consuming global resources at unsustainable levels – businesses are led to cut costs wherever possible. This means placing polluting manufacturing in areas with lower land value, and in which occupants have less “social capital” with which to resist the environmental degradation of their communities. Due to long-standing racism and lack of political representation, those with less social capital are often non-white communities. In the European context, this notably includes (but is not limited to) refugees, migrants, and the Roma minority.

Climate action must address racial injustice, and working against racism can directly support global efforts to curb climate change.

ICLEI Europe works with cities across Europe and beyond, including through leading and implementing projects that target a wide range of urban sustainability topics. In our roles as a membership organisation, as a partner in sustainability projects, and as an advocate for sustainable urban development in Europe, there are a number of ways that we can be more ambitious and deliberate in addressing racism.

Here are some steps that we are taking:

  • We have launched a “Just Transition” subgroup to ensure that we have staff dedicated to addressing social justice in our projects. This subgroup will be expanded to include staff working across all teams, to ensure that social justice is meaningfully accounted for across our work.
  • We will launch a thematic area on our website dedicated to justice in our work, to act as a repository for resources and information, and to amplify the work being done.
  • We commit to – and have begun – engaging our Member Cities to discuss racial justice. We are gathering information on what our cities are doing to combat race-based oppression, what they want to learn from others, and how ICLEI can support them. We, for example, foresee facilitating an online seminar for cities to learn from each other on what has worked and what has not, with respect to working at the intersection of racial and climate justice.
  • We commit to including justice as a component across our project applications.
  • We commit to engaging with and learning from our partner organisations, who hold expertise in addressing systemic racism. We hope to further build our own expertise in this process.
  • We have established a voluntary group of staff, who are meeting to push forward initiatives that address racial justice at ICLEI Europe, spanning both our external work with cities and in projects, as well as our internal operations.

We will regularly announce updates on our progress towards these commitments, and work to improve our performance with respect to taking action at the intersection of racial and climate justice.