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Centering Black Voices in the Climate Movement

by Janet Weil

How many Black scientists, writers, organizers working on climate issues can you name?


If you are like me… maybe one. Maybe none. Maybe you’ve never thought about it. (I’m assuming that most, indeed almost all, of the people on XRPDX’s newsletter list -- thank you for being here! -- are white, like me.)


Why is this important? I cringe a bit that I even have to explain this. A whole book could be written titled “US Environmentalism and its Hidden Figures of Color” or “Climate Change or Climate Justice: Why It Matters What We Call It” or “Hey, Big Green Orgs – Why So White?” Our understanding of the climate movement in the United States is impoverished if we do not know the visioning and leadership of Black leaders. Racism is interwoven with the climate emergency we all face, but we face those impacts unequally. We can work more effectively if we recognize our own privilege as white climate activists, and reach across lines of race, ethnicity and class.


Here’s marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson’s recent essay about why racism slows down her work on climate – which means that finding solutions we all need is also slowed down:

“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. … Consider the discoveries not made, the books not written, the ecosystems not protected, the art not created, the gardens not tended.”

How often have we white climate activists talked about racial issues, and specifically anti-Black racism and police brutality, let alone taken action? Maybe in other contexts, other organizations, maybe in private life. But the time for silos is over. White ignorance of Black leaders in the enviro/climate movements is an unfortunate and curable effect of racism.


Extinction Rebellion’s Number 8 principle is “No Blaming and Shaming” (see all of them here) so let’s not waste time beating ourselves up about it. Time for learning, reading, viewing, sharing, discussing, listening.


One climate expert every Portlander should know: Warren Washington. Born in Portland and a graduate of Oregon State, Dr. Washington specializes in computer modeling of the Earth's climate, including the study of atmospheric-ocean general circulation models to study the impacts of human activities on future climate. Now in his 80s, Dr. Washington has worked for the National Science Board and NOAA and currently is Senior Scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. His numerous awards in a stellar career include National Medal of Science and the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, with Dr. Michael “Hockey Stick Model” Mann. His autobiography is “Odyssey in Climate Modeling, Global Warming, and Advising Five Presidents”.


For a deeper dive, enjoy this compilation of 22 diverse Black leaders in the climate movement – please click on the link to see and listen to an amazing range of human beings taking on many issues in this crisis: community organizing, law, migration, food security, public transit, environmental history, and more.


Racism hurts white people too, including people who would never think of themselves as racist. It narrows our focus, stops us from making crucial connections (social, political and intellectual). A rebellion against the prospect of global extinction includes rebellion against racism, an insane ideology that targets the majority populations of the world.


I’ll give the last word to Ayana Johnson:

“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.”

This was originally published in the June 8th, 2020 edition of the XRPDX newsletter. Join us!

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