There are a lot of good reasons to fight racism. Let’s add one more: We can’t protect the climate without ending it.
If you love spending time outdoors, you are well aware of the dangers of climate change. You might even advocate publicly for the government and major corporations to take action to reduce our carbon footprint. From disappearing snowpack to rising seas, climate change is an issue that affects you personally, so it makes sense that you’d be driven to take action.
Taking a stand for Black lives, however, is often a very different story. Even after the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and so many others have brought the Black Lives Matter movement into the spotlight, many of the same brands and non-Black people who speak out about saving the earth are offering only the most tepid support, posting hashtags and blacking out their social media without committing themselves to the fight.
Beyond the fact that no one deserves to die because of the color of their skin, there is another reason that those who cherish the outdoors must start learning and speaking up about racial injustice. Climate change and racial inequality are so closely bound together that you cannot address the first without addressing the second.
Research has shown that on average, Latinx people, Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color are more concerned about climate change than white individuals. When asked if they were willing to join a campaign to lobby their elected officials to take meaningful action on climate change, 37% of Latinx people and 36% of Black people said they would “definitely” or “probably” join, while just 22% of white people said the same.
Why? To start, they are more affected by it. Across America, climate change disproportionately impacts people of color when it comes to environmental disasters like storms, flooding and heatwaves. They are also more likely to be exposed to harmful air pollution—the same pollutants that cause acid rain, and damage our forests and wildlife, and cause cancer and aggravate asthma in humans.
Black and Indigenous people and people of color clearly have the motivation to be leaders and allies of the environmental movement. But as Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a Black marine biologist and policy advisor, recently wrote in the Washington Post, many of us are too busy protesting for our basic rights—the rights to life, freedom, and safety—to be fully engaged in the climate movement. As Dr. Johnson asks: “How can we expect Black Americans to focus on climate when we are so at risk on our streets, in our communities, and even within our own homes?”
And conversely, I ask: how can we ethically and effectively advocate for our environment if we do not acknowledge how racial injustice is woven into the fabric of the very problem we’re trying to solve?
In many cases, the same systems that have led to the oppression, death and unjust treatment of Black people and other minorities are the same ones causing the destruction of our planet. Policymakers in Minnesota have been working hard to criminalize protests, which would silence both opponents of pipelines and police violence, like those who took to the streets to speak out against the killing of Philando Castile in 2016. And they’re not alone: State legislatures across the U.S. have introduced bills to increase sanctions for things like protesting on a campus or trespassing on property with oil and gas infrastructure.
Economic inequality directly impacts the environment too. The same disparities that have left Black families with 61% of the median household income of white families have allowed the world’s most wealthy people and the corporations they own to relentlessly exploit the environment, with 20 companies alone being responsible for more than one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions.
It’s time to admit that racial injustice is everyone’s problem: It is no longer good enough to leave the life-long work of fighting it to minorities. It is not enough to let big brands (which are often more concerned with image than effect, and may or may not be taking real action to address systemic racism in their own ranks) do the talking and drive the narrative for anti-racism within the outdoors.
We all have the power to move the needle, as individuals and as a group. Taking action on both climate change and racial injustice will look a little different for each of us. Maybe you’re committing to learning and calling out racism in the outdoor industry when you see it; maybe you’re protesting and working to reform systems of power that disenfranchise minorities; maybe you’re signing petitions not only to protect the environment, but also to protect the people who are most affected by climate change.
Now is the time to reflect and ask yourself: How can I fight for both the earth and my neighbors?
Then it’s time to take action.