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Recommended reads on engaging with communities about the climate crisis

Martha Lauchlan

04 October 2019

Illustration by Soofiya

Now that the majority of Labour Councils have declared a climate emergency motion, the focus needs to be on how to engage communities in bringing about change. My recommended reads this week are about communicating the climate emergency in an inclusive way.

I’ve been reading The Climate Majority by Leo Barasi – a brilliant book about climate apathy. When it comes to talking to climate deniers, Barasi is quite clear: don’t bother. He insists that the real targets for engagement should be the ‘swing voters’ on environmental issues, rather than people who are already firmly in a For or Against base. Using approaches developed for political campaigns, Barasi demonstrates how and why we should work to persuade those on the side lines who are quietly concerned or undecided about the importance of taking action against the climate crisis. Well worth a read if you’re thinking about how to engage different groups among your residents in climate action. This is so vital because it’s the people who are more likely to be impacted by climate change who are often the least represented in climate justice talks.

This conversation around inclusivity in the climate agenda has piqued my interest for a long while. As my colleague Hannah Lazell mentioned in her blog a couple of weeks ago, Extinction Rebellion (XR) have been hugely effective in mobilising protests globally and in the UK, but I wouldn’t say that their forte is engagement with Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities.

The cause and effects of the climate emergency demonstrate that it is an inherently racist crisis, disproportionately affecting BAME people all over the world, as argued by Friends of the Earth and Black Lives Matter UK. People from the global south who have been exposed to the effects of a changing climate most severely have been campaigning for decades for the acknowledgement that our human activities are putting more pressure on the environments which their livelihoods rely.

But instead of support and acknowledgement for these indigenous communities and people of colour, polar bears became the poster child for climate change. This did nothing to promote the reality of what the global north was doing to the climate on a human level, and instead presented it as a distant issue for fluffy animals.

Intersectional climate justice groups, who have continued to shine a light on the structures that systematically harm BAME people, have received some attention: for example, Black Lives Matter UK shutdown London City Airport in 2016 to highlight the racial inequality of the impacts of pollution, Autumn Peltier was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 13 as she advocated for the protection of sacred waters around the world, Mari Copeny, widely known as Little Miss Flint, met Barack Obama aged 8 and raised awareness of the dirty water in Flint, helping to secure $100 million to repair the water system.

But XR have seemed to create the biggest and most sustained conversation about the climate emergency through their protests and activism, and have had one of their demands met by Parliament which declared a climate emergency earlier this year. 

And yet, XR seems to do little to acknowledge the disparity in how climate change affects different communities, or explore the privileges that protect others, through its protests. In fact, the objective of the protests of being arrested are what many people have criticised XR for: they ignore historical police brutality towards BAME people. In my opinion, protests with direct action are only accessible to those whom the costs of taking time off work, encountering the police, going to prison and getting a criminal record are negligible, and so exclude those who are unable to. XR’s climate protests continue to be predominantly white spaces, and placards with photos of polar bears on melting ice have now been replaced by Greta Thunberg’s face.  

Gal-dem, an online magazine which posts articles from women and non-binary BAME people, have written about how groups like XR can engage with people of colour on climate justice; Wretched of the Earth, a grassroots collective of environmental justice groups, wrote an open letter to XR to demand better representation for BAME people; and collectives like Beatfreeks in Birmingham have provided resources for local young people to take action in different ways.

XR have responded to some of these criticisms with an open mind, apparently reaching out to BAME-led climate activist groups and holding workshops to developing “listening tools” for activists and organisers. But for as long as Greta Thunberg is the sole poster child for climate change, the climate emergency may appear to be an exclusionary white-led middle-class movement.