Eight Ways That The Fight For Racial And Environmental Justice Are Inextricably Linked

Black Lives Matter

Cities across the United States and Europe have seen unprecedented protests demanding greater racial justice following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on 25 May.

This has sparked a deeper conversation around the world among companies, universities, religious institutions, museums who have had links to racial injustice and slavery.

Given the significance of 19 June (Juneteenth), many companies and organizations have also been quick to sign up to pledges around racial justice.

However, the response among the environmental community has been more nuanced.  

The fight for environmental justice and racial justice are inextricably linked. Here are eight ways how:

1.      Environmental issues disproportionately impact people of color

As the coronavirus pandemic has revealed, people of color have been disproportionately impacted by Covid-19, especially in the United States and UK who track this data. There are many reasons for the racial disparities, such as homes having poorer environmental conditions, poorer public service provision in areas of higher black and minority populations, as well as more marginalized employment leading to greater front line exposure to the coronavirus.

Across the United States, people of color are more likely to be exposed to polluted air, water, soil and poorer working conditions

Outside the United States, climate change and environmental degradation is disproportionately impacting people of color from poorer countries too, in particular low lying coastal and island communities impacted by rising sea levels, indigenous populations impacted by deforestation in the Amazon and Indonesia, water pollution throughout India and growing desertification across Africa.

So people of color are often on the front lines of environmental challenges, with fewer resources for protection against the impact.

2.      Lack of racial diversity among leadership of major environmental organizations

Whilst many environmental organizations have made progress on gender diversity, they still lag significantly behind on racial diversity, and in several cases recently, have even gone backwards.

Through annual surveys conducted by American Sociologist, Dorceta Taylor and diversity NGO, Green 2.0, over 2000 of the largest environmental NGOs and Foundations in the United States were surveyed on racial diversity in their organizations. Among these large organizations, it was shown that at both the Board of Directors level as well as the C-suite (executives directly reporting to the CEO), people of color only occupy 20% of these positions, with very little movement in the decade since diversity issues started to be prominently surfaced among the environmental community.

Even looking at the C-suite, most of those of color are executives in support functions rather than in budget-controlling executive functions. This has implications for the strategy and sort of environmental work that is supported.

Most environmental organizations do not regularly report Diversity and Inclusion metrics. Indeed, two of the biggest environmental organizations – Pew, with an annual budget of $350 million and Oceana, with an annual budget of over $40 million – have not even submitted diversity data to Green 2.0 for their racial diversity transparency surveys. 

This is in stark contrast to how prominently people of color are featured in the Annual Reports of all the major environmental organizations. In a review of the Annual Reports of the 10 biggest environmental organizations over the past year, there are 245 images that prominently features individuals, 231 of them are of people of color, 94% of the total.

So many environmental NGOs have executive teams and Boards that do not reflect much of the communities where these organizations are present.

3.      Lack of diversity transparency among environmental funders

The lack of Diversity and Inclusion reporting was even worse for Grant Giving Environmental Foundations. With the growth of environmental philanthropists who have signed up to Bill Gates and Warren Buffet’s Just Giving Pledge, the lack of Diversity and Inclusion reporting is concerning. With promises as part of the Just Giving Pledge reaching $600 billion (compared to World Bank Annual Commitments of $60 billion), philanthropic grants are a major part of the environmental landscape, yet operate without the transparency and accountability needed.

As the nature of financing for environmental causes also changes with the emergence of new forms of for-profit impact investment funds – often supported by large family offices – that seek to identify revenue-generating opportunities that also have positive environmental impact, more transparency on Diversity and Inclusion metrics are needed here too. Transparency around where grants go can help identify whether there are structural barriers to a level playing field for people of color to receive environmental funding to scale up their work.

Projects need be better tracked, have diversity and inclusion voluntarily reported upon, and assessed at the same standards as projects spearheaded by executives not of color.

4.      Environmental policies that penalize people of color

Compounding the lack of diversity in senior ranks of environmental organizations, some of the policies adopted by environmental organizations have been seen to disproportionately penalize those of color.

Blunt environmental policies such as the creation of ill-considered National Parks or Marine Protected Areas – originally designed as a conservation tool – have been used to forcibly displace indigenous populations.

In 2015, the UN ruled that a marine protected area once celebrated by environmental NGOs as the world’s largest, was illegal and prevented the return of the displaced indigenous population. This was despite all the analysis undertaken by a major US environmental organization that continues to push forward similar policies.

More complete racial impact studies are needed when setting environmental policies, and greater leadership diversity could reveal more innovative solutions than what is currently being promoted by mainstream environmental NGOs that can often lead to binary tradeoffs between human welfare and environmental protection.

5.      Environmental plagiarism dis-proportionally impacts people of color

In many environmental organizations, funding follows those with the most powerful ideas. The environment movement is notorious for people of color being overlooked or having credit taken by others for their work.

As a result, this means that those of color seldom receive the credit or funding they need for career progression or to scale up their projects.

This goes beyond funding to even academic publishing. There is now a movement to ensure indigenous and local researchers receive appropriate acknowledgement and credit in any environmental or scientific collaborations. There is a lot more that academic publications and universities can do to ensure such practices are widely adopted, monitored and enforced.

Several well intentioned ‘open idea’ competitions have also disproportionally impacted people of color, who submit ideas but do not have resources to scale up such ideas, leaving such competitions as pipelines of ideas to help those with privileged access to networks, scale up and receiving funding and credit for these ideas. Again, more work may need to be done for any ‘open innovation’ context to ensure ideas from people of color are equally recognized and rewarded.

6.      Lack of Diversity among Corporate Chief Sustainability Officers

Over the past decade, a new position has been created in the corporate C-suite around the world, the Office of the Chief Sustainability Officer.

Almost every major corporation now has a Chief Sustainability Officer to address environmental concerns and the footprint of their company. These roles carry a lot of influence in the environmental movement.

However, a look through the 50 largest companies listed on the US stock market with Chief Sustainability Officers reveal that less than 10% are people of color (and even fewer are black).

So just as leadership of the environmental organizations are over 90% white, we see the same with Chief Sustainability Officers in companies around the world.

Given the environmental impacts are more likely to be felt by people of color, greater diversity is needed across both the non profit and for profit environmental movement.

7.      Exploring racial legacies in any Environmental Policies

Many environmental policies do not take into account any historic racial or social implications.

For example, most environmental NGOs recommend eco-tourism as the only alternative for poorer communities to benefit from nature.

This has disproportionally benefited those own tourism assets in many countries. Just as the slavery legacy debates have taken place in the US, UK, France and other former colonial powers, the colonial legacies continue to exist in many of the former colonies – particular in tropical islands once dominated by plantation owners.

A close examination of hotel ownership reveals many of the largest chains and prime hotel locations are owned by families once connected to the plantation owning families.

So environmental policies and leadership that do not understand and recognize the socio-economic and historic patterns that continue to exist below the surface, end up reinforcing structural divisions in many of the societies around the world that they are present in.

A more innovative and thoughtful approach to environmental policymaking is needed, than is currently in place among mainstream environmental NGOs, acknowledging any potential racial implications.

8.      Climate reparations

In the last few weeks, calls have emerged once more for reparations for slavery.

Whilst this is a heavily loaded debate, many investors and companies continue to have high carbon emissions in spite of much scientific awareness of the consequences. Given that climate change will disproportionally impact the next generation, and in particular, people of color who may not have the resources to move from impacted areas, could there be parallels with demand for slavery reparations and climate reparations.

Holding Companies and their Shareholders accountable for knowingly continuing to permit polluting activities, could start to bring about the change that is needed..

The need for a new, more diverse environmental movement

If the environmental organizations are unable to reform themselves, there is likely to be rapid disruption.

This can already be seen with the rising prominence of new groups like Rebellion Extinction, 350.org and Greta Thurnberg becoming the new face of the climate movement.

These are leaders and movements that emerged through the cracks of the current environmental movement rather than being incubated by it.

If the current environmental movement is to make the traction the world needs, coming out of the coronavirus crisis, it is important to show courageous leadership and take on the big racial justice questions of our time too.

The lack of racial diversity in senior leadership positions of the modern environmental movement cannot be due to lack of talent. A quick skim through any of the top talent lists of the environmental movement as well as social media traction, reveals a depth of new, innovative and diverse racial talent in the environmental movement.

If the traditional environmental movement does not move rapidly with the times, it may be disrupted sooner than it expects.

The climate and planetary challenges that the world faces – regardless of racial background – are too great to address with such a narrow leadership bench.

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