The Old Testament prophet Habakkuk lived in a world facing disaster at the hands of unjust power. “Wealth is treacherous, and the arrogant are never at rest” he wrote. “They open their mouths as wide as the grave, and like death, they are never satisfied. In their greed they have gathered up many nations and swallowed many peoples.” (Hab 2:5)
Habakkuk’s context was very different to our own, but there is something in his words that resonates in an age of climate change. It’s the emissions from the wealthy and powerful nations of the world that have caused the climate emergency. And yet, it is the poorest who suffer most, and who face the greatest risks. In taking more than our fair share of the global atmosphere, are we in Britain one of those unsatisfied powers, hoovering up what is not ours to take?
It would not be the first time that the global North helped itself to what belonged to others. For centuries it was taking people and their labour. Where I grew up in Madagascar, 1 in 10 people were stolen and exported, some finding themselves as far away as the plantations of Virginia. Slavery gave way to occupation and the taking of land, vast empires that channelled resources back to the wealthy elites of the North.
When I interviewed the theologian Anthony Reddie for the CCA book Time to Act, he saw the continuity: “The impact of climate change on black and brown-skinned people comes on the back of 500 years of exploitation of their bodies anyway. It’s a compound disaster, adding one injustice to another… The people who suffered 500 years ago are the same ones suffering now.”
The racial dimension of climate justice is increasingly recognised – always the same people coming out on top, and the same ones suffering. Climate change has been disproportionately caused by White citizens of the West, and is disproportionately suffered by Black and Brown people in Africa, India and in small island states. Will history judge climate change to be a racist crime, on a par with slavery and empire? How do we respond to an injustice so vast in scope?
These are the sorts of questions I explore in my new book, Climate Change is Racist: Race, Privilege and the Struggle for Climate Justice. It investigates the racial nature of climate injustice, and how racism may have already shaped global responses to climate change, drawing on voices from around the world.
It also looks at what we can do to embrace a more intersectional, more connected activism – one that throws our concern and our empathy wider. An activism that invites us to stand in solidarity with those already suffering, and build alliances to work for social and environmental justice together.
This is a challenge to a white climate campaigner like me, insulated as I am from the negative effects of both climate change and racism. But I hear the words of the climate writer and biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: “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.”
And I also hear the words of Habbakuk: “In this time of our deep need, help us again as you did in years gone by” he prayed. “And in your anger, remember your mercy.” (Hab 3:2)
Jeremy Williams is a writer and activist. Climate Change is Racist is published by Icon Books and is available from 10th June.