Climate change and air pollution are race issues

The people least responsible for causing the climate crisis are the first to be affected.
  Published:  24 Jul 2017    |      Last updated:  10 Jun 2020    |      4 minute read

In September 2016* a small group of people staged a protest at London’s City Airport to draw attention to a fact that doesn’t get enough attention: climate breakdown and air pollution are having a greater impact on black people than on white.

Remarkably, Black Lives Matter activists in the UK have been abused and even called racist for protesting about the disproportionate impact of climate breakdown and air pollution on people of colour. Here’s why Friends of the Earth of the Earth supports them.

Who's most vulnerable to climate change?

You don’t need to be a climate scientist to know that something's going very wrong with our planet.

2016 marked the hottest average global temperatures since records began, with 2019 a close second. It's likely we'll see those records being broken again and again as our planet warms. 

Higher temperatures mean more extreme weather. Over 500,000 people have lost their lives to climate change between 1998 and 2017, most of these in developing countries.  The 2016 heatwave in India and Pakistan hit 53 degrees centigrade. In the Sahel (the sub-Saharan region of Africa) a drought has affected 23 million people and left 3.5 million displaced.

Tropical storm Erika, which hit the Caribbean island of Dominica in 2015, put back development gains by 20 years. Typhoon Huyain, which hit the Philippines in 2013, left 7,000 dead and 2 million homeless. The 2010 floods in Pakistan affected 20 million people and caused US$43 billion of damage.

Increasingly, climate change is displacing communities and catalysing or exacerbating conflict.  

All this is happening at an average temperature of increase of just over 1°C above pre-industrial levels. Yet even the most optimistic projections, based on the 2015 UN climate agreement made in Paris, have temperatures heading towards around 3°C above pre-industrial levels.

It’s true of course that white people have suffered from extreme weather, such as the floods in parts of the UK – and these people need support.

But it’s also undeniable that black communities around the world have suffered the most. The poor, marginalised and indigenous communities who are the first to feel the effects of climate breakdown are overwhelmingly people of colour in developing countries.

People who are socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally or otherwise marginalised are often highly vulnerable to climate change

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Who pollutes the most?

The greatest injustice of climate change is that those least responsible for causing the crisis are the first to be affected.

The poorest – predominantly black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people – tend to have the smaller carbon footprints. Those in wealthy countries (predominantly white people) tend to suffer less severe impacts and/or are more able to adapt, yet they tend to have much higher carbon footprints. 

According to Oxfam, just 10% of the world’s population is responsible for 50% of global emissions (pdf), whereas the poorest 50% are responsible for only 10% of emissions. Oxfam found that the vast majority of the wealthiest 10% live in OECD countries. In the United States, with just 5% of the world’s population, the average citizen has a per capita income of US$41,064 a year and creates about 17.3 tonnes of CO2 a year; India, with 18% of the world’s population has an average US$3,148 per capita income and its citizens are responsible for 1.4 tonnes of CO2 a year.

The poorest countries, overwhelmingly in Africa, that constitute 11% of the global population, with a per capita income of just US$1,461, are responsible, on average across Africa, for only 0.9 tonnes per head.

Is it only climate change that affects black people more?

Nearly 1 in 3 global citizens don’t have access to clean or affordable energy. Pollution from wood fuel now kills more people than tuberculosis and malaria combined. And close to 700 million people don’t have access to fresh water, while billions lack even basic sanitation. Again, the vast majority of these people are black.

According to academic research, particulate air pollution in the UK is concentrated in the 20% of poorest neighbourhoods in England and in areas with a greater proportion of black people.

The Campaign for Better Transport has identified that black people are 30% more likely to be injured on the road than white groups, while black households are much less likely to have access to a car than white households.

The decline in urban green spaces in the UK will most severely affect black communities who, according to Natural England, rely more on urban green space for recreation than the rest of the population. Black people are four times more likely than white people to have no access to outdoor space at home (e.g. a balcony or a garden).

In sum, we're talking about environmental injustice, environmental racism.

Is Black Lives Matters right to protest?

Black Lives Matter UK has put the issue of race and the environment on the political agenda. They did so by pointing out that aviation expansion – a fast-growing source of climate-wrecking emissions – will hurt black people most while benefiting the wealthy, and mostly white, City Airport customers. They pointed out that in Newham, where the airport is situated and where I live, there are already significant air-pollution issues that an expanded airport will exacerbate.

The protest inconvenienced people through cancelled and rerouted flights. Set this against the fact that there are up to 36,000 premature deaths a year in the UK because of the unhealthy air we breathe.

Why were white people protesting?

Black Lives Matter UK is led by black people but is also supported by white people – some of whom were at the forefront of the City Airport protest. This was to minimise the risk of over-reaction by security personnel sensitised by years of political and media scaremongering against black and Muslim people.

Black Lives Matter is, in Friends of the Earth’s view, right to stand up and expose a dreadful reality: that far too many people of colour across the globe are dying and suffering from a fast-degrading environment while the wealthy and powerful, the majority of whom are white, are dithering and delaying, and sometimes making matters worse. It’s an inconvenient truth, but it is a truth. The best response is not to try to deny this truth, but to improve our environment for white and black alike. That’s what Black Lives Matter wants; that’s what Friends of the Earth wants.

We must be honest that climate injustice and environmental racism are part and parcel of how racial injustice affects the lives of so many people. We should condemn these injustices – and value the lives and voices of those on the frontline of climate change.

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* This article was first published on 13 September 2016, but it was updated in June 2020 to reflect more recent events. The original author, Asad Rehman, is now Executive Director at War on Want.