23-year-old Ugandan climate activist Venessa Nakate was recently cropped out of a photo issued by the Associated Press (AP) of her and her white peers. On the Friday this was posted, she was gearing up for a “Fridays for Future” protest that was set to take place in the afternoon. Included in the shot was Greta Thunberg and fellow activists Luisa Neubauer, Isabelle Axelsson, and Loukina Tille. Nakate herself is the founder of the climate action groups Youth for Future Africa and the Rise Up Movement. She has taken part in 56 “Fridays for Future” protests and has spent more than 80 days campaigning for the Congo forests. Upon seeing the photo, Vanessa Nakate, relayed her feelings in a video which has since gone viral. In the video, she stated that she now understood “the definition of the word racism.” She went on to add about what she considers the erasure of black and brown voices in conversations surrounding climate change, pointing out that people who look like her are those most vulnerable in the face of rising global temperatures. “We don’t deserve this. Africa is the least emitter of carbons, but we are the most affected by the climate crisis,” she said. “You erasing our voices won’t change anything. You erasing our stories won’t change anything.”
While AP later apologized for their mistake, the issue highlights the explicit underrepresentation of people of color. Communities of color statistically feel the harshest effects of the climate crisis, and yet their voices are often sidelined. For decades, the face of the climate movement has been that of white Americans. This underrepresentation, along with cultural stereotypes, has made it seem that people of color care less about the climate than their white counterparts; however, this is simply inaccurate. In a study produced by the Yale Project on Climate Change, African Americans and other people of color were shown to be some of the most ardent supporters of progressive climate and energy policies. They are also more likely than whites to voice support for these policies. Additionally, a New York Times poll found that Hispanics were more inclined to say the Earth was warming because of humans and support progressive climate policies.
Clearly, people of color are invested in working to address climate change and other environmental issues. And yet the mainstream environmentalist movement has failed them, largely because it has been designed by and for a white, upper-middle-class demographic. This has caused many racial minorities to disassociate with the climate movement. Across the country, people of color are heavily underrepresented in mainstream climate organizations. However, while their voices are often sidelined, the perspectives they bring are some of the most important.
Although racial and ethnic minorities comprise just 38 percent of the U.S. population, studies show that environmental racism leaves them disproportionately exposed to air and water pollution as well as death from climate-related natural disasters, such as heat waves and hurricanes. One of the most prominent examples of environmental racism is in Detroit, Michigan. In Detroit's most affected districts, around 71% of the population is black, and almost all residents are of low income families. These families are exposed to the brunt of the city's enormous pollution issue. According to the Metro Times, residents in these communities suffer extremely high rates of asthma, cancer, brain damage, heart disease, respiratory problems, and birth defects, all linked to pollution. An NAACP report showed that over 2,000 Black children in Detroit have asthma attacks due to pollution. Additionally, studies have revealed that the average life expectancy of someone living in Detroit and someone living in the suburbs differs by 10 or 15 years. While wealthy families are able to afford seeking refuge in clean areas, poor minorities continue to live in the country’s most polluted regions.
This example of environmental racism is mirrored all around the country in many different forms. “[Communities of color] are in double jeopardy from the climate crisis,” says Dr. Beverly Wright, CEO of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. “First, if you’re a person of color, particularly Black or Latino, you’re more likely to live near toxic facilities, like petrochemical companies here in Louisiana, producing toxins that shorten and impact quality of life. And then, [our communities] are on the front line of impacts from climate change, living in places where there could be more floods and a higher incidence of different [climate-related] diseases. For poor communities, there’s also not having access to health insurance or medical services. Communities of color are disproportionately affected by all of these things.” Perhaps even greater are the effects of climate change in Vanessa Nakate’s home country of Uganda.
Experts say Africa is the most vulnerable to climate shocks, with more frequent droughts and floods affecting people like farmers and herders, leaving them with little time to recover before the next disaster. East Africa, which includes Nakate's home country of Uganda, is facing its worst locust invasion in decades after one of the wettest seasons in 40 years came on the back of a drought—a situation scientists say is becoming the new normal. In Uganda, floods and landslides have become more frequent in recent years, and government sources estimate that 300,000 people have been affected and 65,000 displaced. Nakate hopes that these recent events can bring attention to people of color’s importance in the climate fight. "Everyone is speaking against the erasure of African activists and the world has set their eyes on these African activists,” she remarked. “I believe that now is the time for them to be given the platforms to speak out and to be listened to."
Communities of color are already at the frontlines of the climate crisis, are already those who are most impacted, so shouldn’t voices like Venessa Nakate be the voices featured? If we are truly going to combat climate change, we must include all voices and perspectives. After all, the climate movement's goal is to ensure a livable future for all humans. For this to happen, the movement itself needs to prioritize these communities to ensure the future of our planet is not only habitable, but also equitable for people from all walks of life.