Over the past few years, as Black Lives Matter has grown into the global movement that it is today, there has been an increasing focus on what it means for white people to be allies; to demand racial justice alongside people of colour. The powerful words of Martin Luther King Jr., who had a lot to say about keeping silent while others are in pain, are often invoked in discussions on what it means to ally with Black Lives Matter. I’ve reflected on one quote in particular over the years, increasingly over the past few months: “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” Recently, I’ve come to realize that I have betrayed many of my friends and colleagues who are people of colour in the past through my unwillingness to reflect deeply on my white privilege. This blog begins with my journey to grapple with my own white privilege and my contribution to systemic and institutional racism and ends with how we could all do better, – particularly those of us working on climate change – to ensure that no one is left behind in our collective efforts to address climate change. I strongly believe that if Black lives truly mattered there would be no loss and damage from climate change and that, in fact, that we would have solved the climate challenge long ago. We can no longer ignore systemic and institutional racism and how it has influenced both climatic change and the responses to it.

I am a white woman born, raised and currently living in the global North, though not in the country of my birth. I know that I cannot fully understand the magnitude and extent of my privilege as a white person. I will never know what it is like to walk through the world as a person of colour. However, I also know that I can no longer be silent in what I see in my day to day life working on global climate policy.

I began my career working in an indigenous community in my native Canada. I know what centuries of systemic racism and intergenerational trauma looks like; I have seen it on too many faces. It was during those years that I first became interested in sustainable development and, in particular, addressing the root causes of vulnerability, at the centre of which, is marginality. Today, I am a researcher, working on global climate policy, with a focus on adaptation and Loss and Damage in vulnerable developing countries. For several years, I have had the privilege of working with, and supporting, climate change negotiators from vulnerable developing countries. Most of my colleagues are people of colour and all are from the global South. They are members of the policy elite, highly educated and prominent decision makers shaping climate policy in their countries. Some are advisors to ministers and heads of state. Yet, from what I witnessed, more often than not, it was the colour of their skin which informed how they were treated as they move through the world.

While working and travelling with climate change negotiators from the global South, I witnessed racism play out on so many different occasions. The disparity between how my colleagues were treated and how I was treated was often stark and always disturbing. My colleagues would sometimes get detained longer than necessary at immigration and – more often than not – they did not receive the warm reception that I did at airports or hotels. Though I was supporting them, when we were together, people would often address me, ignoring my colleagues altogether.

When we would talk about what happened in the aftermath of those frequent incidents of racism, I could see the pain and exhaustion of the day in and day out of racism written on their faces; I could hear it in their voices. Looking back, I see now that I failed to hold space for my colleagues in those moments. I felt helpless and paralyzed by shame. I did know, however, that to stay in that place of ignorance and paralysis was irresponsible and immoral given what I had witnessed. I also knew that I had privilege as a white person that I could not begin to understand the extent of – but I had to try.

Two years ago I set out on a journey to better understand both racism and my privilege as a white person with the help of several advisors and guides who are people of colour. I am grateful to the friends and colleagues who mentored me and continue to do so. I learned to be a better active listener and to create space for others to share their experiences with racism without becoming paralyzed by shame and helplessness. I still have a lot to learn and I know I can never really know what it’s like to experience racism day in and day out. I am thankful the patience of my guides and advisors. It has allowed me to start to move beyond the shame I feel in being a white person working in the global South and to reflect on the bigger question of what prevents us from more deeply engaging with racism in our work on climate change.

The link between climate change and racism has been well acknowledged. Jamie Margolin, a a young climate activist recently wrote in a guest blog for The Elders, “the systems that caused the climate crisis are racist.” In his post in the Correspondent Eric Holthaus wrote:

[c]limate change is racist because the system that cause it is racist. No, rainstorms don’t care about skin colour, but worsening weather worldwide aggravates the divisions in society that already exist because it hits people of colour living in poverty the hardest. Simply put: the reason the world hasn’t been fighting climate change as hard as it should is because powerful people don’t want to stop exploiting people of colour. The urgency of climate change is also an urgency for racial justice.

Adelle Thomas and Rueanna Haynes of Climate Analytics elaborate on the links between racial justice and climate justice in their recent blog. They stress that climate change disproportionately affects people of colour – both in the global North and South. It is well recognized that climate change has the greatest impact on vulnerable developing countries. Yet, these countries continue to demand support, both for adaptation and to address loss and damage that cannot be avoided through adaptation, through the global climate regime. The longer it takes for that support to come, the greater those losses and damages will be. This, despite the fact that the obligations for developed countries are clearly laid out in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), established in 1992. For me this invokes the question: If we truly valued the lives of those living in the global South wouldn’t we have scaled up climate action long ago? Surely we wouldn’t have let global average warming rise above 1°C.

Racial inequality within countries also means that people of colour are often disproportionately impacted by climate change. In his article for the New Yorker, Bill McKibbon notes that Black Americans are three times more likely to die from asthma than the rest of the population in the United States. He argues that:

[t]he job of people who care about the future – which is another way of saying the environmentalists – is to let everyone breathe easier. But that simply can’t happen without all kinds of change.

What does “all kinds of change” mean? In my view it means engaging with the root cause of racial – and all other forms – of inequality. The global climate regime and indeed, the entire UN system, is built on a colonial legacy, which continues today, and perpetuates institutional and systemic racism. For me this is clear. However, when I have raised these issues during discussions on climate change in the past, my comments have often been rebuffed by other white people working on climate policy, while colleagues who are people of colour often agree, though in private. Many of my colleagues from the global South are afraid to confront these issues; while others have faced the repercussions for doing so. I myself have been branded an activist – among other terms used pejoratively – for pointing out the inequalities between global North and South in the global climate negotiations. I have been told I need to decide whether I want to be an activist or a researcher. But it is precisely because of my research in the global South that I have come to understand how pervasive racism is. Living and working in vulnerable developing countries and working with marginalized communities in my own country has forever changed my perspective. I cannot “unsee” what I have seen; nor “unexperience” what I have experienced. While researching climate policy and the change makers who influence it, I have come to that if we are truly committed to changing the world we must first know ourselves. I know my biases – do you know yours?

In my work I see the impacts of colonialism every day. I do not consider that we are in a post-colonial or even neo-colonial era. What I see in my day to day is straight up, old school colonialism. I see it in the way in which the global North continues to repress the global South in the global climate negotiations, the way in which decisions are made without the full participation of the communities and countries that are impacted by them and in the way in which some institutions are more concerned with the needs of donors than those of the countries they claim to support. And indeed, most profoundly,  in the fact that losses and damages from climate change are intensifying in magnitude and frequency, with the impacts of climate change disproportionately felt by countries and communities in the global South.

We now know from the response to the COVID-19 pandemic that it is possible to trigger billions of dollars, pounds and euros within a matter of hours. Clearly money can flow for what it valued. In the spring of 2019 two events happened within weeks of one another which also demonstrate this phenomenon. The first event was the onset of Cyclone Idai, which swept through southern Africa in late March of 2019 leaving over 1300 dead, affecting over 3 million people and causing over 2.2 billion USD in damages to infrastructure alone; notwithstanding the significant toll on human lives. In his blog on Weather Underground, Jeff Masters called Cyclone Idai, which was followed weeks later by another storm, Cyclone Kenneth, Africa’s Hurricane Katrina. The second event that occurred in the spring of 2019, was the fire in mid-April, which left the Notre Dame with significant damage to its infrastructure. An outpouring of donations followed and in just two days, 1.1 billion USD had been raised for the needed repairs to the Notre Dame. Colleen Ford, who compared the response to the Notre Dame fire in the wake of Cyclone Idai, among other crises in her blog, argued that, “it turns out that humanity can fix world issues – it’s just that we don’t want to”.

What is behind the response to the Notre Dame fire? Why wasn’t there a similar outpouring of support for victims of Cyclone Idai? Why are developing countries still in need of finance to address climate change almost 30 years after the UNFCCC was established? Indeed, why hasn’t poverty been eradicated worldwide? Fundamentally, I believe that the answer lies in what we collectively value as a global society, and what we do not value. Some lives matter more than others. The UNFCCC is built on the legacy of colonialism, which was driven by the creation of “the other” based on the construct of race.

The legacy of colonialism and the responsibility of developed countries for driving climatic change has been well acknowledged. In the lead up to COP 21 in 2015 Pope Francis wrote anencyclical on caring for our “common home”: planet earth. In it, Pope Francis writes of an “ecological debt” which exists between the global North and South caused by the “disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time.” Of anthropogenic climate change he says: “[t]he warming caused by huge consumption on the part of some rich countries has repercussions on the poorest areas of the world.” Since COP 21 it is considered passé to make reference to historical responsibility as if we’ve moved beyond it and it no longer matters. I often hear developed countries make declarations like, “we are all in the same boat”. Climate change will impact all countries – this is true – but in fundamentally different ways. We are absolutely not in the same boat. We are in different boats with different capacities and capabilities. Global solidarity is essential in the response to climate change. But, how will we limit warming to 1.5°C if we do not engage with the inequality that both drives climate change and influences the responses to it?

In 2015 the UN General Assembly established the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to “transform our world” through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which commits to leaving no one behind. Transforming our world requires engaging with the reasons why people, communities and countries are vulnerable and the inequalities both between, and within, countries. In 2018 the UN Committee for Development Policy (UNCDP) released a briefon the progress towards leaving no one behind in the effort to achieve the SDGs. The UNCDP maintains that in order to leave no country behind global action must support, rather than hinder, the capacity of countries to develop sustainably and facilitate, rather than block, the equal distribution of global wealth. According to the UNCDP, this must include a coordinated effort on taxation, cross-border financial flows, migration and remittances, debt relief and trade and to ensuring that development engages with those affected by its interventions. The brief also recommends that the governance of development initiatives include both donors and recipients, with equal decision making power.

If we are serious about transforming development, addressing climate change and leaving no country, community or person behind, then we must engage with the root causes of vulnerability – at all levels. The Durban Declaration and Programme of Action is the outcome of a global conference, held in the fall of 2001, in which the international community came together to develop a plan for ending racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and all other forms of intolerance. The Declaration acknowledges that slavery and colonialism are among the root causes of contemporary racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia against Africans, people of African and Asian descent and indigenous peoples and includes strategies for achieving “full and effective equality”.

In her 2019 report to the UN General Assembly, Tendayi Achiume, the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobic and related intolerance, addressed the obligations of UN member states to make reparations for slavery and colonialism. This includes the eradication of the structures that have given rise to racial inequality, which were built during slavery and colonialism to deny people of colour fundamental human rights. These efforts, Achiume writes, must include reforming the legal, economic, social and political structures which enabled slavery and colonialism and which persist today, sustaining racism and equality. Among other recommendations, the report proposes that a well-funded global platform be established to ensure reparations for slavery; arguing that, as colonialism and slavery were “global projects”, an international intervention is needed to make reparations and move forward to create an equitable world.

Looking back on the frequent incidents of racism I witnessed while working with and travelling with climate change negotiators from the global South, I wish I had done more than be embarrassed and ashamed of being white in those moments. I wish I had asked my colleagues more about their experiences with racism. I wish I had created space for my colleagues to express their pain rather than feeling helpless and paralyzed. If I could go back and do that, I would. The late poet Maya Angelou famously declared that, “when you know better you do better.” What I know for sure is that we can all do better and that we now know how to do that. The international community committed to ending racism and creating a world with “full equality” almost twenty years ago. Five years ago UN member states committed to a development agenda to transform our world and leave no one behind. It is time now to operationalize those commitments.

Recently a podcast I often listen to, Rich Roll, featured two well-known Black American men – John Lewis and John Salley – discussing Black Lives Matter. White people, they said, are not going to get a gold star for being allies of Black Lives Matter. I wondered why it is that white people think we are worthy of gold stars for speaking out against something that we ourselves have perpetuated and which our ancestors started in the first place. Perhaps it is because so few of us are moving past the discomfort and shame to learn about the day to day experiences of being a person of colour in a world in which systemic racism flourishes; so few white people are engaging with our white privilege and how we perpetuate racism. In recent weeks I have seen many international CSOs and northern based institutions declare their support for Black Lives Matter. This left me wondering: what does it mean to align with or stand behind Black Lives Matter? Just as white people will not get gold stars for aligning with Black Lives Matter and saying they support racial – and all forms of – equality, nor will CSOs, governments and other actors. What I really want to know is, what are you doing to DO?

I have a few ideas on that but I’m sure there is much more than could be done and I would love to hear from others. I would like to see CSOs working on climate change and, particularly those in the global North, develop a manifesto that includes a plan for how they are going to ensure more expertise, knowledge and perspectives from the global South is integrated into their work. I would also like to see more inclusion of the perspectives, knowledge and expertise of people of colour in our collective work on climate change. As Ayana Elizabeth Johnson writes in her recent blog on why Black Lives Matter is important for work on climate change, the climate movement will not succeed without being more inclusive of people of colour. I expect the northern based institutions who claim to support vulnerable developing countries to actively engage with the issues that are important for those countries. I anticipate all countries working together – with leadership from developed countries – to create a roadmap for how to ensure that no country, community or person is left behind in the global effort to address climate change and achieve the SDGs. This must include concrete actions for reforming global policies that keep some countries poor and make other richer. We cannot say that we are going to leave no one behind and then not develop the institutional, policy and legal frameworks that are needed to make that happen. I hope to see the UN Secretary General outline a plan for how the UN will work to develop new structures that promote all forms of equality. We cannot say we want a development agenda that is transformational without engaging with what transformation means. It is by its very definition – according to the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change – a fundamental change to human and natural systems. Transformation will require us to get uncomfortable and to challenge the status quo.

Race and racism are social constructs and, therefore, just as they were constructed, they can be deconstructed. The structures that support systemic and institutional racism can be dismantled. However, to do so, we must first acknowledge the dark history of our past; the legacy of slavery and colonialism. We must take stock of where we are now and how we got here. Once we acknowledge, heal and integrate those dark shadows of the past, we can collectively create a world in which full equality is achieved and no one is left behind. While countries must take the lead in operationalizing their commitments and reforming global policy, everyone has a role to play in achieving an equal world. We must keep each other accountable and cultivate honest conversations about inequality. Racism, and all other forms of prejudice, will only be eradicated if we all work together and if those of us who have privilege acknowledge our role in perpetuating racism and other forms of inequality and injustice.


About The author- Erin Roberts is an independent researcher and strategist working on global climate policy with a focus on adaptation and Loss and Damage in vulnerable developing countries. Her “Why” is to ensure all countries, communities and the people within them have the capacity to thrive in the midst of climate change and other global challenges. Her focus at the moment is working with young climate leaders from the global South, including through the Climate Leadership Initiative.

Originally this blog was published on 10 August  on Climate Leadership Initiative Website.

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