Justice and representation in the environment sector
There’s a basic idea that says all people and communities – no matter where they are – must have equal right to protection and enforcement of environmental laws and regulations. It basically means that no community should suffer disproportionately from the effects of oil spills, for example. The idea is known as "environmental justice."
Not everyone enjoys that basic human right. So, in order to achieve environmental justice, we need to look at the barriers to it: racial, class and gender-based discrimination.
Climate change and air pollution issues are race issues
As a young black woman in the early stages of my career in environmental law and policy research, I’m only too aware of the complicated links between gender equality, climate justice and race in the environment sector.
Indigenous, black and brown communities around the world are more vulnerable to air pollution because of racism that sees them commonly located near belching factories, smog-filled highways, exploding pipelines and other extractive infrastructure driving the climate crisis. Within such areas (known as "sacrifice zones"), communities have less power to reject development plans. On the other hand, richer, whiter communities are better equipped to fight off motorways, terminals or fossil fuel projects in their neighbourhoods.
In 2019, Friends of the Earth carried out a study with the help of communities up and down the country, exposing the illegal air quality conditions in thousands of UK locations. What's more, a UK government report found higher risk of exposure of black British children to air pollution than white children. The tragic death of nine-year-old Ella Roberta, who lived close to one of London’s busiest roads, is a painful example of how vulnerable members of society are increasingly harmed by air pollution. And it’s not just the UK that’s affected.
Environmental racism isn't one-size-fits-all
Environmental racism comes in many shapes and sizes. It may be as obvious as the infamous comments of Chief Economist and former Vice President of the World Bank Lawrence Summers, who advocated “more migration of the dirty industries to the less developed countries.” It may be a government continuously choosing to promote fossil fuel investment instead of investment in community-based renewable energy.
Or it may be the exclusion of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) voices in climate solutions.
But from under-representation of black and brown people in the workplace to racialised and hostile environments, colonial history continues to empower the UK and other western countries to the detriment of countries in the Global South (in other words, countries in Latin America, Africa and South Asia).
The colonial attitude of the UK government is still unmistakeable when it comes to climate and environmental justice. Just consider its recent decision to fund a climate-wrecking liquefied natural gas (LNG) project in Mozambique.
The decision failed to take into account the climate impact on Mozambique, nor the real-time impact on communities that have been displaced, showing just how the systematic and ongoing exploitation of natural resources in the Global South is reinforced by political and economic dominance. These post-imperialist patterns, which continue to enable western governments to maintain control over resource-rich countries, harm both people and planet.
Representation in the environment sector
Back in August, I witnessed a familiar and disappointing demonstration of the lack of representation and awareness within the environment sector. I joined a webinar that discussed the impact of climate change in Commonwealth countries, the vast majority of which are African, Caribbean, and Asian countries. Yet the panellists were exclusively white men, and so it was only white men who were leading the conversations and offering perspectives about the impact of climate change on a group of countries which are predominately populated by black and brown people.
Given the impact climate and environment breakdown has on BAME communities, the environment movement cannot continue to focus on drawing support and participation from the white, upper-middle class segment of the population.
That seminar for me highlighted that being merely non-racist is an outdated minimum humanity threshold that must be superseded by active anti-racism work.
How do we achieve environmental justice?
Historic marginalisation and anti-immigrant sentiment have both contributed to the demonisation of low-income black and brown communities in working spaces.
To help organisations become anti-racist, working cultures must promote inclusive recruitment, retention and progression opportunities. That way, we're more likely to achieve fair representation of black and brown individuals in the workspaces.
Our environmental institutions and workspaces must consider the global effects of colonisation and industrialisation, and the ways these have impacted the lack of a diverse representation of minority interests in the UK's environmental movement. Environmental professionals are the second least diverse profession in the UK. In my particular specialty – environmental law – the situation isn't much better. Just six out of more than 800 UK-based partners at "Magic Circle" law firms (the most prestigious firms) are black. And despite a recent study showing an increase in BAME women to the legal profession, black people in the sector remain under-represented and female professionals are still disadvantaged in terms of career progression.
The disadvantages that affect the career progression of BAME individuals, such as lesser career prospects, are made worse by the fact that the environmental sector doesn't always engage with the issues that black people face. If we're to develop fair climate policies that properly address the tension between social and ecological values, we need to first listen to the needs of low-income communities.
A healthy planet is the basis of our survival as a species. Sadly, the current pandemic has served as a scary preview of the racial and ethnic disparities that are set to widen due to climate breakdown. Anti-racism work within the environmental movement must adequately redress the structural unfairness and the double penalties that exist in black women’s lives. And it’ll require the full representation of BAME voices within the environmental sector for environmental justice to become a reality.
A longer version of this article was published by eLaw in October 2020.