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Black Lives Matter and the struggle to centre racial justice in the climate movement

Elias Yassin

PhD Student in the Department of Geography

27 October 2020

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests amplified calls not only to confront racism but to centre racial justice within the climate movement in the Global North. Drawing from his experience as a Black climate activist, formerly with Extinction Rebellion (XR), Elias Yassin looks at what challenges could impede XR’s efforts to be truly inclusive of activists of colour.

A Persistent Disregard for Black Lives

Being a climate activist of colour in an overwhelmingly white climate movement is exhausting. Consistently, I have found myself pushed to the margins of XR UK because of a persistent disregard for Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPoC). In April 2019, while I researched XR’s protests in London for my master’s dissertation, this disregard manifested as an intense pressure for me to join the ‘arrestables’ and was dismissive of any risks I - a Black, queer and disabled person - might face from the police. Mass arrests, XR UK’s primary strategy of non-violent direct action, promoted a perception of both the police and criminal justice system as benign structures activists should engage with to call attention to the climate and environmental emergency. It operated on faith in the system – a faith that people of colour could not afford – and more pertinently, deployed a white experience of the world into a universal perspective that was seldom challenged.

Activists caught in the emotional whirl of ‘holding the frontline’ of the April Rebellion would use cheers and stories to venerate the ‘sacrifice’ of the arrestables. Yet, nowhere on-site was there mention of the increasing murders of land and environmental defenders, mostly from the Global South – and this silence reverberated a longer racist silence which hangs heavy over the environmental movement, particularly where political questions about power and justice are concerned. Whose life is considered worth saving and whose is disposable? Many activists of colour criticised XR UK’s pervasive ‘methodological whiteness’. Notably, Wretched of the Earth, a grassroots environmental justice collective for Indigenous, people of colour and diaspora groups, called on XR to undertake ‘an ongoing analysis of privilege as well as the reality of police and state violence’ in their strategy. They suggested that a ‘plurality of tactics’ which different communities could participate in was necessary to co-creating transformative change. Yet, both XR UK’s leadership and the wider movement were slow to act on the growing criticism and continued focusing on mobilising greater numbers of activists to be arrested.

However, the global BLM protests demanding the end of structural racism and police brutality against Black people finally prompted XR UK to formally apologise for how their ‘behaviours and attitudes [towards the police] fed into the system of white supremacy’. XR UK has committed to actively changing their culture by doing the work of unlearning racism. But what struggles will they face in their fundamental shift away from white supremacy within their thinking, spaces and practices?

‘Climate Chads’ versus Climate Justice


Elias Yassin tweet

A tweet from my thread about why climate justice is social justice

No amount of voluntary anti-oppression or decolonisation workshops outlining how the climate crisis is interlinked with colonialism, slavery, resource extractivism and labour exploitation, will counteract the Climate Chad effect. Emily Atkins describes Climate Chads as activists who claim to care about issues such as racial inequality or police brutality, but who, out of an insidious anti-blackness, believe responding to the climate emergency should be separate from intersectional environmentalism. They argue that social justice struggles are the preserve of the ‘left’ and undermine the climate movement because it prevents a singular focus on ‘uniting behind the science’ and limits mass mobilisation for climate action.

At the height of the BLM protests last summer, I encountered countless Climate Chads (self-identified white middle-class men) on XR’s digital spaces (their views are reflected in physical spaces). They drew activists supporting racial justice into conversational loops, insisting that the climate emergency is a universal scientific problem, posing an equal threat to our common future. Yet, ‘we’ are not all equally to blame for the current trajectory nor will we all experience climatic impacts evenly. The affluent in the Global North bear the disproportionate share of the responsibility since their high-carbon lifestyles drive the systems of global production and consumption, which are accelerating the climate crisis. Conversely, it is predominately BIPOC communities in the Global South who bear the brunt of the adverse effects of increasing climate disruption.

Climate models cannot capture the human dimensions of climate change. This is why young climate activists now increasingly demand climate justice and a new more just, global system. XR Youth, for instance, consistently highlight the need to actively listen to activists of colour, educate themselves and amplify BIPoC voices from the majority world within their activism. Communities of colour, many whom have been resisting the root causes of climate change for decades, are far from mere ‘resilient pixels’ for activists in the Global North to save through ‘sacrifice’. However, their work, along with that of the Black-led XR Internationalist Solidarity Network, remains unknown or misunderstood within XR UK. The movement must question how Climate Chads contribute to the marginalisation of work on antiracism, decoloniality, feminism and global justice.


XR Youth Oct Reb 2019

XR Youth at Trafalgar Square during the October 2019 Rebellion (Photo: Elias Yassin)

Fundamentally, Climate Chads perpetuate a disregard for non-white lives by denying the complex historical, social and economic dimensions of climate change. Through their adherence to the notion that the climate emergency is beyond politics, they espouse a new form of climate denial, which refuses to give up space to BIPoC voices and stories and exhausts activists who challenge its anti-blackness.

Becoming actively antiracist requires more than the acknowledgement that it is necessary to tackle white supremacy. It requires that the climate movement assess how whiteness shapes it’s activism by reinforcing silences and exclusions that prevent BIPoC people from reframing climate conversations. It calls for XR activists to push back against the Climate Chads who would have the climate movement reproduce the power imbalances that led us into climate and environmental crises. It asks us to understand that this is a collective struggle to align society with our planet’s boundaries and co-create healthy and just low-carbon futures.

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