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If Black Lives Mattered…Transforming How We Respond to the Climate Crisis

Excerpted from Naomi Klein’s article in the Nation magazine by Bobby Righi

What does #BlackLivesMatter, and the unshakable moral principle that it represents, have to do with climate change? Everything. Because we can be quite sure that if wealthy white Americans had been the ones left without food and water for days in a giant sports stadium after Hurricane Katrina, even George W. Bush would have gotten serious about climate change. Similarly, if Australia were at risk of disappearing, and not large parts of Bangladesh, Prime Minister Tony Abbott would be a lot less likely to publicly celebrate the burning of coal as “good for humanity”. And if my own city of Toronto were being battered, year after year, by historic typhoons demanding mass evacuations, and not Tacloban in the Philippines, we can also be sure that Canada would not have made building tar sands pipelines the centerpiece of its foreign policy.

The reality of an economic order built on white supremacy is the whispered subtext of our entire response to the climate crisis, and it badly needs to be dragged into the light. The highly racialized discounting of certain lives does plays out between countries but also, unfailingly, within them—perhaps most dramatically within the United States. I was reminded of this while reading about Akai Gurley, the unarmed 28-year-old black man who was “accidentally” shot and killed last month in the dark stairwell of a Brooklyn housing project. Like the elevator, the lighting system in the building had been left unrepaired, despite complaints. And when that neglect of a public institution that disproportionately serves African-Americans intersected with armed fear of black men, the result was lethal.

When Superstorm Sandy hit New York City two years earlier, a similar combination of forces showed its brutal face. Housing projects suffering from decades of official neglect were devastated by the storm, with water and electrical systems completely knocked out for weeks. No lights. No heat. No power for lights or elevators. But the worst part was how fear of those darkened buildings clearly played a role in keeping government officials and relief agencies from checking in on elderly and sick residents, leaving them stranded in high-rise buildings without basic provisions for far too long.

Thinly veiled notions of racial superiority have informed every aspect of the non-response to climate change so far. Racism is what has made it possible to systematically look away from the climate threat for more than two decades. It is also what has allowed the worst health impacts of digging up, processing and burning fossil fuels— from cancer clusters to asthma—to be systematically dumped on indigenous communities and on the neighborhoods where people of color live, work and play. The South Bronx, to cite just one example, has notoriously high asthma rates, and a staggering 21.8 percent of children living in New York City public housing have asthma, three times higher than the rate for private housing. The choking of those children is not as immediately lethal as the kind of choking that stole Eric Garner’s life, but it is very real nonetheless.

If we committed ourselves to responding to the climate crisis on the basis that black lives matter, it would demand hopeful transformations — greatly improved services, increased democracy and self-determination, real food security and countless good jobs. In short, a justice-based climate mobilization would do more than end the way neglected communities are policed; it might just help end the neglect itself.

The clarion call that Black Lives Matter deserves to transform how we approach a great many crises in our societies, and it must jolt us out of our climate inaction. Because if the current race-based hierarchy of humanity is left unchallenged, then we can be certain that our governments will continue their procrastination, to allow for the sacrifice of ever more people, ever more ancient cultures, languages, countries. Conversely, if black lives matter—and they do—then global warming is already a five-alarm fire, and the lives it has taken already are too many.

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