Black, White and Green all Over: Race in Climate Negotiations

As I sit here in London, sometimes it feels weird seeing racial turmoil unfolding in my own country while I’m studying environmental problems and writing about China.  As a black woman who has spent lots of time in China, I have certainly had my fair share of uncomfortable run-ins with racism, ignorance, and confusion. Many Americans now question what the future holds for race relations in the US. I’m wondering what the future holds for race relations in the climate negotiations.

Why does climate change discussions so often disregard race and ethnicity? Racial and ethnic minority issues are often squeezed into a small paragraph with other “possibly vulnerable marginalized groups” like women or children in the policy briefs I’ve read for class. But race relations and ethnic tensions are very much intertwined with the climate issue. Studies conducted in the US and the UK show that air quality is often worse in areas where racial minority groups live. Forest land has been grabbed from tribal minorities in India, and ethnic conflicts have arisen in the Middle East over water shortages.

It was actually in China that I came to realize the relation between race, ethnicity and the environment. I worked with Tibetans in Qinghai and learned of environmental problems facing them such as desertification and glacier melt. One of the most contentious policies I have learned about is the “Ecological Migration” policy. It aims to reduce desertification in Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau grasslands by moving rural residents (mostly Tibetans) off of their land and into new settlements. The issue has become contentious because social scientists see it as a way for the state to control a marginalized group, while certain environmental scientists (mostly Han Chinese, the largest ethnic group in China) say it is the best option for grassland recuperation. (This environmental policy, along with others aimed at grassland preservation, were later found to be ineffective by non-Chinese scientists, but there are still strong proponents of the policy.) We see two worlds colliding: environmentalists and social scientists; ethnic minorities and the majority.

I personally saw the tensions unfold a few summers ago, and it was an experience that shook me—and still shakes me. It awakened me to the reality that environmental issues cannot be resolved in many cases without first solving underlying social tensions. If minorities’ opinions, knowledge, and experiences are not respected, climate policies cannot be effectively implemented. It would be like trying to put a Band-Aid on a broken leg. It won’t heal.

As these tensions gradually (or sometimes quickly) fracture Chinese and American societies, it is clear that there are miscommunications. In acts of so-called “violence,” minorities in both countries try to have their voices heard on issues that have slowly and silently suffocated them. Some social scientists are now concerned that in Paris this December, new policies will be built on a foundation already fraught with financial, racial, and gender inequalities. So how do we draw more attention to these issues in a way that both scientists and social scientists can understand, and, even more importantly, agree upon?

Representation of these groups in the climate negotiations space is a key to inclusion, but it starts at a local level, too. Who makes decisions about the lives being lived in the grasslands in China? Where is the knowledge coming from—local residents or state scientists? Even the movements themselves could be more inclusive. Are the activists from the climate march in New York the same ones holding Black Lives Matter Protests? Are the activists fighting for environmental preservation in China the same ones promoting rights for ethnic minorities? They don’t necessarily have to be the same, and there is certainly some overlap, but there needs to be a better, more thorough exchange of concerns.

Another key for the negotiations will be addressing racial issues without treating minorities as victims and instead treating them as equal stakeholders, knowledge creators, and assets. There is often encouragement of non-minorities to become allies for communities of color. I think it’s time environmentalists become allies, too, because if these inequalities are not addressed now, climate change will only make them worse.

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Desertification in Qinghai grasslands

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