On the penultimate day of the recent United Nations climate summit in Lima, Peru, activists staged a “die-in” outside the conference center. They were honoring the thousands upon thousands of lives already lost in disasters and conflicts deepened by climate change. And they were doing something else: symbolically joining the increasingly global #BlackLivesMatter uprising, which has brought shopping malls and busy intersections to a standstill from the United States to the United Kingdom.
The courageous demonstrators shouting “I can’t breathe!” and “Hands up, don’t shoot!” are asserting a core principle about the value of every human being, starting with the most discounted. Standing in solidarity with their calls for a transformation of the criminal-justice system is of paramount importance. But why should the questions raised by #BlackLivesMatter end there? What does #BlackLivesMatter, for example, have to do with climate change? Well, everything. If wealthy white Americans had been left without food and water for days in a giant stadium after Hurricane Katrina, would it be possible for so many Republican politicians to deny the crisis? If Australia were at risk of disappearing and not large parts of Bangladesh, would Prime Minister Tony Abbott feel free to extol the burning of coal as “good for humanity”? If Toronto were being battered by historic typhoons that caused mass evacuations and not Tacloban in the Philippines, would building tar-sands pipelines still be the centerpiece of Canada’s foreign policy?
The reality of an economic order built on white supremacy is the whispered subtext of our entire response to the climate crisis, and it badly needs to be dragged into the light. I vividly remember the moment when the centrality of that racism burst onto the world stage. It was exactly five years ago, at the now-infamous UN climate summit in Copenhagen. On the second day of the gathering, a document was leaked showing that governments were on the verge of setting a target that would cap the global temperature rise at 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). The temperature target—pushed by wealthy nations in Europe and North America—would likely not be enough to save some small, low-lying island states. In Africa, the target would translate into a full-scale humanitarian disaster. When word of the text got out, African delegates immediately filled the conference center’s sterile hallways with harrowing shouts of “We will not die quietly!” The paltry sums that rich countries had pledged for climate financing, meanwhile, were angrily denounced as “not enough to buy us coffins.” Black lives matter, these delegates were saying—even if this corrupted forum was behaving as if that was far from the case.
The highly racialized discounting of certain lives also plays out within countries. I was reminded of this while reading about Akai Gurley, the 28-year-old unarmed black man who was “accidentally” shot and killed in November in the dark stairwell of a Brooklyn housing project. Like the dilapidated elevator, the building’s lighting system had been left unrepaired despite complaints. And when the neglect of a public institution that disproportionately serves African-Americans intersected with a policeman’s armed fear of black men, the result was deadly.