The Climate Change Debate: Black People Are Being Left Out and That Can Be Deadly


When Bloomberg Media convened an invitation-only forum of notables on “The Future of Climate Change” during the first weekday of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia last summer, there was only one black person at the table.

When that person, economist Julianne Malveaux, finally asked what that event’s cross section of environmentalist elite were doing about the disproportionate impact of climate disaster on black people, the reaction was quizzically tense.

“But, well, what do you recommend we do?” was the response from one white woman, who seemed to pose it more as a challenge than a question.

And when the other black person in the room (a silent observer for the only two black media outlets present) suggested that they could start by purchasing ads in black newspapers—such as the big daily one in Philly—the room was dumbfounded for a few seconds.

The exchange captures the level of diversity in the mainstream environmental movement: that is, not much. Instead, it’s unrepentantly white. Green activism is a massive nonprofit industry with green-economy market potential, but it’s constantly shaped by white voices: a national “green conversation” unfairly bathed in the stereotype of long-haired, tree-hugging white college kids road-tripping from one protest to the next.

Blame falls mostly on the movement itself. While the recent stand by indigenous tribes at the Dakota Access Pipeline site in North Dakota might have briefly changed perceptions of the popular green movement’s complexion, it didn’t fix the broader problem of a space stubbornly dominated by white faces.

For Green 2.0 Executive Director Whitney Tome, that’s nothing but green-movement business as usual. “While working in oceans, fisheries and national parks for a decade, I noticed a pattern: I was often the only woman of color,” Tome pondered recently. “I often found it hard to offer any solutions because I, like many others, had to overcome implicit and often explicit barriers where people may think I am less qualified, less knowledgeable and less able to provide insight.”

Impending policy fistfights over climate change are already rattling Washington, D.C., as a climate-change-denying Trump administration takes over. There are signs that the Trump White House, with congressional Republicans, will gleefully roll back hard-fought progress on climate change and air and water issues. But the open battle over national environmental policy—certain to hog up many headlines over the next few years—will find black voters, advocates and politicians largely absent. Lead environmental advocacy organizations from the Environmental Defense Fund to billionaire Tom Steyer’s hyped NextGen Climate PAC are overwhelmingly white either in their staff makeup or in their leadership.

“Without people of color in positions with policymaking capacity, it means that the perspectives of people of color are less likely to be included in the deliberations or outcomes,” Tome noted.

Yet, when human-made or human-instigated disasters inevitably hit, black folks are on the front lines. Bad water in Flint, Mich. Lead poisoning in an East Chicago project. Historic flash flooding in Baton Rouge, La. Superstorms along the Northeast. City-flattening hurricanes in New Orleans.

But the lack of a black presence in the climate fight is one cruddy outcome of a broader environmental conversation dominated by white voices. And it’s not helped when mainstream environmental organizations welcome very little diversity within their ranks, much less black representation. In its “The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations: Mainstream NGOs, Foundations & Government Agencies” report, Green 2.0 found that diverse populations often hit a “green ceiling”; people of color barely account for 16 percent of environmental-organization staff (even though they are 36 percent of the U.S. population), and 5 percent of nonprofit boards. The situation worsens at upper-management levels, or what’s called the executive “C-suite.”

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