If you were to trust what you see in the UK media you would think that climate change is a white issue that speaks to and is populated by one demographic alone.
The reality is that from Seattle to Beijing the international climate movement is a dynamic, multicultural, multi-class and intergenerational force using a diversity of tactics to challenge the root causes of climate change. It’s just the British movement that is a bit, shall we say, stuck in its ways.
I watched the premier of This Changes Everything in London over the weekend, as part of a global series of screenings and live chats with film-makers, Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis. The film starts in Alberta Tar Sands, one of the world’s largest ticking carbon bombs. Klein and Lewis amplify the stories of communities such as the Beaver Lake Cree, who are taking on the Canadian government and an army of energy giants for the rights to assert their traditional rights to live on the land, and leading the way with the transition to community-led solar projects.When we switched to the panel discussion in London I experienced cognitive dissonance. We had just been watching all these incredible stories about this multicultural global movement, only to be suddenly met with an all white panel. Hosts Friends of the Earth recently made a big fuss about addressing the lack of diversity in the movement, with its chief executive Craig Bennett calling it a “white middleclass ghetto”. So it was embarrassing but not surprising, to see that at the launch of this international event, there was not a person of colour, or anyone from the ‘global south’ on the panel.
I met with Klein last year at a gathering of NGOs and climate movers and shakers in a workshop for the launch of the book of the same title. We were there to explore “broadening the climate movement in the UK.” She has been working with some of the same inspiring indigenous activists who have redrawn the map for environmentalism in Canada.
The movement in Canada has gone through a seismic shift with a generation of indigenous activists demanding a seat at the table. At the People’s Climate March in New York last year they were at the front alongside indigenous leaders from across Turtle Island, and representatives from a diverse range of communities from hurricane Sandy survivors to the Philippines.
Klein has been inspired by what’s been happening in Canada to bring social and environmental movements together, so I hated to break it to her that this was not the case in the UK. At the last UK climate march people of colour like myself were poorly represented, if not invisible.
Britain should wake up to a new environmental movement that jives with new global realities. The Leap Manifesto which launched in Canada last week is a testament to the movement-building taking place in Canada. It sees an incredible coming together of First Nations, civil society, artists, unions of fossil fuel workers and ngo’s calling for a just transition from fossil fuels. We are no longer working in the development paradigm where the global south is waiting to be saved by the north.
Back in the cinema, the activist in me wanted to jump on the stage with a Black Lives Matters banner. Luckily, I looked over at my friend who’s new to the phenomenon of the all-white speaker panel, and has a Filipino background. She was laughing at the situation, saying it was almost like we were back in 1984. She joked about a Band Aid mindset – “Do They Know It’s Climate Change?”
I have decided that we no longer have time to be challenging the non-profits for crumbs at the table or a seat on the panel, so I will be boycotting white-only panels for a while. There’s simply too much work to do.
I also wonder how much of the absence of people of colour though is half our own fault: is the British immigrant population too busy getting ahead to worry about climate change? Are we simply disengaged from the debate, or are we organising in our own communities but just aren’t getting the word out on our terms?
When the big UK green NGOs start to do that personal reflection and wake up to what it means to work in solidarity and side by side with communities then they’re more than welcome to join this global, multicultural, multi-class, vibrant movement that is changing everything.