When I initially saw the headline that seven ‘Black Lives Matters’ protesters had blockaded London City Airport, it took me a moment to join the dots. Were the airport staff racially profiling passengers or the management showing bias in recruitment? The actual reason for the blockade requires some mental backflips, so limber up now.
An article published in the guardian, written by Alexandra Wanjiku Kelbert on behalf of ‘Black Lives Matter UK’, explains, ‘the climate crisis is a racist crisis. On the one hand Britain is the biggest contributor per capita to global temperature change. It is also one of the least vulnerable to the effects of climate change. On the other hand, seven of the 10 countries most vulnerable to climate change are in sub-Saharan Africa.’ This is one hell of a damning proposition; she suggests that the reason people in Britain care so little about tackling climate change is that it predominantly impacts black people, whose lives, we collectively believe, don’t matter.
But Alexandra didn’t actually say this did she. She stated that there was racism at play and then put forward two distinct ‘facts’; the first being that the British are the biggest contributors to global warming and the second that countries populated by black people are disproportionately impacted by climate change. The reader is left to do the erroneous work of connecting these points with the motivation of racism.
The protesters are either being intellectually dishonest (and are aware that there are no racist intentions at play), or they misunderstand what racism actually is
I think it is important that I clarify my personal views before carrying on. I wholeheartedly believe that climate change is the most pressing issue of our day and it will cause unprecedented harm to our planet including, not least, the population of sub-Saharan Africa. I also acknowledge that the developed world is predominantly responsible for these issues, due to the total number of years we’ve been burning fossil fuels, and that our continued contribution to global warming shows a complete disregard for the ecosystems and people impacted by it.
So this isn’t about me being a climate change denier or contesting my involvement in a society that continues to pollute our planet. This is about a group of protesters incorrectly implying that any apathy I, or the British people, have about climate change is in part down to racism. This accusation suggests that if the population of sub-Saharan Africa were majority white, I would make a greater effort to minimise my Carbon footprint. This is unquestionably a nonsensical argument. To arrive at this conclusion, the protesters are either being intellectually dishonest (and are aware that there are no racist intentions at play), or they misunderstand what racism actually is.
Racism is of course the belief that one race is superior to another. Or put another way, racism is in the intention, not the action. If a white person attacks a black person it could be for a multitude of reasons; it could be driven by sexism, homophobia, or a personal disagreement to name but a few. Race may not come into it. Likewise, racism may not play a part in an individual’s opinions about flying.
So what are my reasons for using London City airport? I use it because it’s a necessary evil. I’m an engineer and I build offshore wind farms. I wish I could do this from the UK, but the unfortunate truth is that we do not have a single offshore wind turbine manufacturer based in this country. I use telephones and video conferencing where possible, but the reality is I cannot do my job without frequent trips to Denmark and Germany. I obviously cannot speak on behalf of all people who use this airport, but to my knowledge there’s no proof that racism is a factor in their behaviour. Unless there’s evidence showing that racists fly more than non-racists, for example, Alexandra should be very careful in making such a damning accusation.
Wealth, not race, is the real divide here
I would also argue that focusing on the impact climate change has on black people unfairly plays down the magnitude of what is a global environmental crisis. Through selecting certain statistics, it is possible to prove that one country or another will be impacted more, but we’ve already seen unprecedented droughts in India, five Pacific Islands lost to rising sea levels and a winterless Arctic. As stated by Rajendra Pachauri, the chairman for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, "Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change''. Climate change is colour-blind.
Wealth, not race, is the real divide here; rich countries will build the flood barriers and desalination plants etc. needed to fend off the effects of an enraged mother nature, whilst the poor will be exposed to her full force. We must fight to ensure that the wealthy countries, including Britain, take responsibility for disproportionally causing this crisis and finance those countries most in need.
I am concerned to see that this idea of climate change being a ‘racist crisis’ is gaining traction and has been supported by both Friends of the Earth and former Green Party Leader Natalie Bennett. Maybe this is driven by a belief that, for the greater good, we should support any voice that attracts publicity to the fight against climate change. This will undoubtedly backfire. We have to look no further that Greenpeace’s decision to fabricate information in the 1995 campaign against the dumping of Shell’s redundant oil storage buoy. The truth eventually came to light and Greenpeace’s reputation suffered irreparably.
The fights against both racism and climate change need all the support we can muster, but arbitrarily confounding the two notions is morally confused and risks derailing two arguments that are too important to lose.