How racism and injustice interfere with climate action

I’ve cared about environmental problems for my entire life. One of the things that led to my stunningly successful early social life was yelling at other kids for “hurting trees” by breaking sticks of them when I was in kindergarten. Predictably, as a white guy, I didn’t really think about race or racism much growing up. It wasn’t that I wasn’t taught about those issues at all, just that they generally seemed like something in the past. When I started to really focus on climate change, I fell into the trap of feeling like issues such as racism and sexism needed to take a “back seat” to the climate issue, because that affects literally everyone on the planet. With the future of humanity at stake, it sucks that some people have to deal with discrimination and offensive language, but they should just get over it until we’ve got this environmental stuff under control.

I wish it didn’t need saying, but it does – I was wrong. I had that entirely backwards.

There are three major reasons for why that was wrong. The first is that as with so many other excuses that lead to “we’ll deal with bigotry when this more important stuff has been solved”, there’s no end point. There are always going to be ways in which we can improve our interactions with the rest of the biosphere. Ending the use of fossil fuels will solve some problems, leave other problems untouched, and create new ones. Switching to nuclear power means dealing with a vast increase in both the generation of nuclear waste, and the amount of uranium and thorium mining. Increasing reliance on solar power is already causing problems through the sand mining industry. There will never be a point at which our environmental problems are “solved”, so telling people that their struggle for justice should wait until that’s “dealt with” is actually telling them to never expect justice for themselves or their descendants. That’s a non-starter, and frankly it seems like a great way to convince people to not give a shit about the cause that YOU say is “for everyone”.

The second – and probably more important – reason is that people need justice. Chronic injustice poisons societies. It creates justified resentment and anger, it creates division, and it provides opportunities for bad (and pretty much always wealthy) actors to use propaganda to further divide society for their own benefit. It also makes it far easier for “well-meaning” people to push problems onto others, rather than actually solving them. Many of the “solutions” to the environmental crises of the 20th century involved things like moving the biggest sources of pollution to places like China, and having the people there deal with horrific air quality, or shipping vast quantities of trash to other parts of the world. Here in the US it meant that poorer people – disproportionately black and Native American – have been literally poisoned. They’ve had to live nearer to sources of pollution like pipelines, factories, power plants, and highways, and suffer the myriad health consequences of that, while middle and upper-class white folks got to enjoy an increasingly clean and green world, and feel that the environmental problems were being solved. I should also mention that poor white people have also been at the receiving end of this.

And that meant that most of those problems did not get solved. The injustice continued, got worse in some ways, and the environmental problems simply got relocated.

The third reason is what that message says about the goals of those spreading it. It says that the purpose of environmentalism isn’t for everyone to be able to live a good life and allow their descendants to do the same, but rather for one subset to have that good life, at the expense of everyone else if that’s what it takes. If we’re not in this to lift everyone up, then we’re not just being shitty to the people we’re pretending to help,  we’re also obstructing the very goals we claim to care about.

On this blog’s original WordPress home, I have a quote under the blog’s title:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” – Antoine de Saint Exupéry

If we tell people their struggle for justice must wait until all the other big problems in the world are solved, we’re not just telling them to give up on finding justice for themselves. We’re assigning them to tasks and work, while telling them that they will never get to go on that boat, or if they do, they’ll be locked in the hold without the ability to witness the sea, or have a say in where the boat is going. And if something happens, they’ll be the first to drown. With an offer like that, how could they possibly refuse? It’s basically the same deal Black Americans have always been forced to take – to work their entire lives for the benefit of people who tell them they’re bad for even wanting things to improve for themselves.

It’s not just unjust and immoral, it’s also staggeringly unrealistic. It’s a complete fantasy to expect that people will just live, for generation after generation, without any real hope for the freedom to actually pursue happiness for themselves, or even for their children.

People have a need for freedom, justice, and self-determination. The drive for that has existed throughout human history, all around the planet. And just as endless justifications and systems of persuasion and propaganda have been devised to convince people to accept less than that, so have those systems and justifications always failed. People always rise up. People always demand the right to control their own lives. The time, effort, and resources spent on opposing calls for justice and freedom take away from all those causes that are, at one time or another, put forward as reasons why the fight for justice must be put on hold.

And that is what hurts all of us. If we’re working to “save the future”, then we need to work for a future that’s worth saving. Dealing with climate change, and our other environmental problems, is something that requires the cooperation of our entire species, and that means that we need that “better future” to be better for everyone. Justice, freedom, and self-determination are prerequisites.

Because when people demand those things, and those in power fight to maintain injustice and inequality, other things must be put on hold. From the Washington Post: 

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a marine biologist, policy advisor, and Brooklyn native. She is founder and CEO of the consultancy Ocean Collectiv, founder of the non-profit think tank Urban Ocean Lab and co-editor of the forthcoming anthology “All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis.”

Here is an incomplete list of things I left unfinished last week because America’s boiling racism and militarization are deadly for black people: a policy memo to members of Congress on accelerating offshore wind energy development in U.S. waters; the introduction to my book on climate solutions; a presentation for a powerful corporation on how technology can advance ocean-climate solutions; a grant proposal to fund a network of women climate leaders; a fact check of a big-budget film script about ocean-climate themes, planting vegetables with my mother in our climate victory garden.

Toni Morrison said it best, in a 1975 speech: “The very serious function of racism … is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” As a marine biologist and policy nerd, building community around climate solutions is my life’s work. But I’m also a black person in the United States of America. I work on one existential crisis, but these days I can’t concentrate because of another.

The sheer magnitude of transforming our energy, transportation, buildings and food systems within a decade, while striving to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions shortly thereafter, is already overwhelming. And black Americans are disproportionately more likely than whites to be concerned about — and affected by — the climate crisis. But the many manifestations of structural racism, mass incarceration and state violence mean environmental issues are only a few lines on a long tally of threats. How can we expect black Americans to focus on climate when we are so at risk on our streetsin our communities, and even within our own homes? How can people of color effectively lead their communities on climate solutions when faced with pervasive and life-shortening racism?

Even at its most benign, racism is incredibly time consuming. Black people don’t want to be protesting for our basic rights to live and breathe. We don’t want to constantly justify our existence. Racism, injustice and police brutality are awful on their own, but are additionally pernicious because of the brain power and creative hours they steal from us. I think of one black friend of mine who wanted to be an astronomer, but gave up that dream because organizing for social justice was more pressing. Consider the discoveries not made, the books not written, the ecosystems not protected, the art not created, the gardens not tended.

It’s hearing police sirens and helicopters in my Brooklyn neighborhood and knowing those who sound them do not always aim to protect and serve. It’s walking the back roads near my mom’s home Upstate New York and being more scared of the local white kids in the pickup truck with the Confederate flag on the bumper — in a state that was never part of the Confederacy — than I am of the local black bears. It’s spending my weekend writing these words.

Here’s the rub: If we want to successfully address climate change, we need people of color. Not just because pursuing diversity is a good thing to do, and not even because diversity leads to better decision-making and more effective strategies, but because, black people are significantly more concerned about climate change than white people (57 percent vs. 49 percent), and Latinx people are even more concerned (70 percent). To put that in perspective, it means that more than 23 million black Americans already care deeply about the environment and could make a huge contribution to the massive amount of climate work that needs doing.

I did get tiny tasks done last week — emails, (virtual) meetings. Because we are taught the show must go on, I mustered the composure to conduct an interview about the importance of planting trees. But none of the deeper work got done, none of the work that could be a significant contribution to how we think about climate solutions and how fast we implement them. Instead of working, I was checking in on my people, staying informed, doom-scrolling.

Now I’m totally spent. Not from the day, but from the week, the month, the year, this presidential administration, this country that keeps breaking my heart. We are resilient, but we are not robots.

People of color disproportionately bear climate impacts, from storms to heat waves to pollution. Fossil-fueled power plants and refineries are disproportionately located in black neighborhoods, leading to poor air quality and putting people at higher risk for coronavirus. Such issues are finally being covered in the news media more fully.

But this other intersection of race and climate doesn’t get talked about nearly enough: Black Americans who are already committed to working on climate solutions still have to live in America, brutalized by institutions of the state, constantly pummeled with images, words and actions showing just us how many of our fellow citizens do not, in fact, believe that black lives matter. Climate work is hard and heartbreaking as it is. Many people don’t feel the urgency, or balk at the initial cost of transitioning our energy infrastructure, without considering the cost of inaction. Many fail to grasp how dependent humanity is on intact ecosystems. When you throw racism and bigotry in the mix, it becomes something near impossible.

Look, I would love to ignore racism and focus all my attention on climate. But I can’t. Because I am human. And I’m black. And ignoring racism won’t make it go away.

So, to white people who care about maintaining a habitable planet, I need you to become actively anti-racist. I need you to understand that our racial inequality crisis is intertwined with our climate crisis. If we don’t work on both, we will succeed at neither. I need you to step up. Please. Because I am exhausted.

For more from Dr. Ayana Elizabeth, check out her website at

If we return to the metaphor of building a ship, we need one that works for everyone. Bigotry and authoritarianism lead to conflict and righteous mutiny, and even in those times where the powerful manage to crush dissent, their efforts make it harder for everyone do the work of sailing, or catching fish, or performing repairs. Bigotry hurts us all, and we’ve got important shit to deal with, so bigots need to get over themselves, and get out of the way so we can do the work that needs doing.


  1. StevoR says

    If we return to the metaphor of building a ship, we need one that works for everyone.

    An old cartoon of a canoe (?) with stereotypical poor, dark-skinned “”third world” people in one end bailing water out frantically and stereotypical top hat and suit clad rich white “first world” people sitting fecklessly at the other doing nothing and saying “Don’t worry the hole is just in their end – we’re alright here.” Or something very like that springs to mind.

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