As the climate crisis escalates, it is vital to recognise that the consequences of global warming will not be felt uniformly across the planet. Intersectional Environmentalism connects injustices perpetrated against marginalised communities with the exploitation of the earth, advocating for eco-social activism that is not whitewashed. In the future, only an intersectional approach will be able to address and respond to the realities of the climate crisis.
Kimberlé Crenshaw, one of the most influential black feminist legal theorists in the US, coined the term “Intersectional” in 1989 to critique feminist movements favouring the needs of white, middle-class, heterosexual, able-bodied and cisgender women. Crenshaw highlighted how different forms of discrimination can “intersect” and compound each other.
Intersectional Environmentalism has been built on this same principle, focusing on the connections between environmental degradation and the disproportionate consequences for different social groups, including people of colour, Indigenous communities and climate refugees. At its heart, Intersectional Environmentalism is an inclusive activism that foregrounds both environmental and social justice, requiring the voices of all identities in the fight against climate change.
Global warming has a history entwined with capitalism. In his book The Political Economy of Global Warming: The Terminal Crisis, Del Weston argues that climate change cannot be separated from the history of Western imperialism, highlighting how capital accumulation “is directly linked to the exploitation of both labour and land” (80). Capitalism’s inherent need to grow is linked to the impoverishment of poorer countries to supply the needs of wealthier nations.
Countries of the Global North, including the UK, have historically been the main perpetrators of environmental degradation. These same nations will be the last to feel climate change’s adverse effects, with the Global South impacted most severely by rising temperatures and biodiversity loss. This pattern is already clear to observe. In a report by the UNDP, developing countries will suffer 99% of the casualties attributable to climate change, despite the fact that the 50 least developed nations have contributed to only 1% of greenhouse gas emissions. People living in polar, coastal, and mountainous regions are the most vulnerable to climate change, and this is only exacerbated by poverty. From 1998 to 2018, 91% of storm-related fatalities were in developing countries.
There remains a deep and pervasive problem of denial, with governments failing to acknowledge global warming is a result of systemic injustice. The West continues to exploit resources from the Global South, contributing to climate change that disproportionately affects the nations least responsible for global warming, while continuing to deny many of these citizens refuge. In a UN report, 90% of refugees now come from countries which are the most vulnerable and least equipped to adapt to the impacts of climate change, disproportionately affecting women. The refugee crisis is only set to worsen as the climate crisis induces more extreme weather events and rises sea levels, threatening food security and livelihoods.
Indigenous peoples are the worst affected by the effects of climate change. Few countries recognise Indigenous land rights, meaning displacement and fatalities often remain undocumented. Ironically, many conservation groups are contributing to a narrative that humans should be separated from nature – Indigenous communities live on their ancestral land interdependently with the environment, enabling nature to thrive. Indigenous groups have experienced violence and displacement from their lands both at the hands of nations and corporations responsible for ecocide, as well as renewable energy projects designating land for themselves without consultation, consent, or compensation.
Activists have connected ecological and social exploitation, demonstrating how racial and environmental injustice intersect. During a speech in 1982, African American civil rights leader Benjamin Chavis coined the term “environmental racism”, defining it as “racial discrimination in environmental policy-making”, the deliberate targeting of “communities of colour for toxic waste facilities”, and the “history of excluding people of colour from leadership of the ecology movements”.
For decades, activists of colour have been advocating for social and environmental change, but many of these voices have been excluded by a system that amplifies white activists. It is vital that climate action is not whitewashed – the future of environmentalism will only thrive as an inclusive and racially diverse movement. This will only be possible by dismantling systemic white privilege and amplifying marginalised voices, actively working to build a more equitable and inclusive world for all.
These are a few intersectional environmentalists who put these issues at the forefront of their work, advocating for both protection of people and the planet.
A member of the Native American Navajo Nation, Michelle Cook is an Indigenous human rights advocate and lawyer. She founded the intersectional, Indigenous-led divestment campaign Divest Invest Protect. Their mission statement focuses on divestment from fossil-fuels, investing in Indigenous peoples as central actors in shaping economic change, and protecting human rights, lands, and territories.
Focusing on veganism, zero-waste, and environmental justice, Isaias Hernandez incorporates diversity inclusion work in academic research and creative platforms. He highlights BIPOC and LGBTQ+ voices through climate justice storytelling on his platform @queerbrownvegan, an educational outlet and safe space for other like-minded individuals to engage with environmental justice.
Describing herself as an eco-communicator and eco-creative, Leah Thomas advocates for environmental justice and inclusivity within environmental education. Her articles have been featured in Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Youth to the People, and she is the founder of eco-lifestyle and educational resource platforms @greengirlleah and The Intersectional Environmentalist.
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