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"Climate change is not a white issue," says BLMUK

LOOKING BACK: The action, planned by BLMUK and executed by non-black friends of the group grounded 131 flights on September 5 2016

A LITTLE over a year ago, BLMUK successfully shut down London City airport to call attention to three things:

1. Britain is both historically and disproportionally responsible for global temperature changes, and yet remains among the least vulnerable to climate change. The opposite is true of the countries we hail from on the African continent.

2. Closer to home, we see that it is disproportionately poor people, and Black people, who suffer the most from environmental injustice. We highlighted just one such area - Newham, where 8 schools exceed the legal air pollution limits.

3. Freedom of movement at present is only a reality for a privileged elite
while many are dying trying to reach Britain’s shores.

After the shutdown came a wave of backlash, this time not just from the Daily Mail and Priti Patel, but from our own communities. We were told that Black Lives Matter UK had been hijacked, that we were pushing a ‘white’ agenda. Except that environmental injustice has always been an issue for our communities.

As if proof were needed, that global warming is bringing with it a drastically increased risk of extreme weather, in 2016 Hurricane Matthew hit the Caribbean island of Haiti, killing hundreds of people. The Union of Concerned scientists in the U.S. noted that: ‘The number of North Atlantic Category 4 and Category 5 hurricanes has roughly doubled since the 1970s.’ As this goes to press, Hurricane Irma bears down on the Caribbean. We do not know how damaging the storm will be.

Unfortunately, because of global inequalities that are in part of the legacy of imperialism and colonialism, we do know that the resources required to respond are too often not in the hands of those Caribbean people who need them. If they were, then we know that we could be much more a certain that Black lives will be protected. The factors that make an extreme weather event into a disaster or catastrophe precisely those structure of the inequalities patterning the loss of black life globally.

The same week as Matthew hit, a government report found that black Londoners were more likely than white Londoners to be exposed to the damaging nitrogen dioxide emissions which exceed EU safety regulations. Hurricane Matthew, like today’s Hurricane Harvey, is a disaster with a disturbingly clear body-count. The damage caused by nitrogen dioxide emissions is a slow painful death our communities rarely see coming - both are caused by an environmental racism which devalues black life and fails to protect us.

AFFECTED: People walk down a flooded street as they evacuate their homes after Hurricane Harvey

In the last few weeks, from Houston to Central Nigeria, Sierra Leone to South Asia, we are once again seeing coastal and vulnerable areas hit by catastrophic floods. Rivers are bursting their banks, crops are destroyed, livelihoods crushed as people are displaced, and countless lives have been lost. India, Nepal and Bangladesh are also suffering the worst floods in years, which have killed over 1,200 people. Floods and hurricanes are a common feature of the weather patterns in the Caribbean and parts of South Asia, but there is more to these seemingly natural catastrophes.

Climate scientists have been urging policy-makers and the press, to pay attention to how climate change is increasing both the frequency and intensity of these storms. Michael Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University (USA), is among those highlighting how increases in sea temperatures help make stronger hurricanes, for instance.

While scientists agree that climate change is intensifying due to fossil fuel emissions, what is often missed, is a point which may seem obvious: if climate change was affecting North America and Western Europe as badly as it is affecting the Caribbean, South Asia and other regions such as Central Africa, then the response would be very different. Look at the meagre media exposure the latter sinking under water have received, compared to a drowning Houston.

Hurricanes and floods themselves cannot easily be averted. The scale of the destruction wrought, however, and whether or not an event becomes a disaster or a catastrophe, cannot be fully understood without reference to the racism that underpins climate change and state responses, as it unfolds globally. The same inequalities that compound the impacts of the floods in Central Nigeria, or in Haiti last year, are those that leave Black and poor lives more vulnerable to pollution-related illness here in the UK.

A report commissioned by the mayor of London found that boroughs with the highest black populations, are those with the highest levels of nitrogen dioxide. This climate issue has been creeping up on black communities for years. In February 2013, Ella Kissi-Debrah, a nine year old black girl, died of an asthma attack.

She lived in Lewisham’s Hither Green, in South East London, near the busy South Circular road. The South Circular, is just one of the many busy of roads in the capital which pass through disproportionately poor, and by extension Black, areas. The family’s lawyer stated that: “There are strong grounds to believe that our government may be in breach of its duty to protect life in Ella’s case.”

Four years on, little has changed. A study conducted by researchers from Kings College London tell us that air pollution kills up to 9,500 people a year in London. Out of the 433 schools in London located in areas that exceed EU limits for nitrogen dioxide pollution, 83 percent are in the most deprived boroughs, with 40 percent of pupils on free school meals. In boroughs such as Newham, this problem is particularly pronounced, due to the existence, and possible expansion, of London City Airport.

ACTION: BLMUK at London City Airport. Their banners read ‘Climate Crisis is a Racist Crisis’ and ‘Black Lives Matter'

These runways service a tiny wealthy business elite, in one of London’s most ethnically diverse boroughs, where almost half of the population lives on £20k or less per year. The disparity in wealth and its connection to health in this area is undeniable.

And this isn’t only about airports. Further west, Ivybridge, in Isleworth West London, is not only home to some of the highest levels of poverty in the Borough of Hounslow, a locality where many refugees have been placed, but also to the Mogden Sewage Treatment Works. It is in these areas that children grow up with higher rates of asthma, and skin conditions such as eczema.

Just ask yourself, who lives next to power plants? Who lives next to the dirtiest of roads vital to the movement of goods? Whose children are born with asthma and eczema? The answer is clear. The most dangerous of industries, the smelliest of waste units, the most polluted roads are in the backyards of the poor, which too often in this country also means the backyards of Black people.

When BLM say ‘Black lives matter’, we are talking about Black lives in their entirety, and in all their complexity. All Black lives matter. But if we are to take this statement seriously, then climate change needs to be a core part of the conversation around creating a world where Black lives truly matter.

None of this is incidental. Just as individual black deaths in police custody must be understood as part of a wider system founded upon racist ideology and practices, so must the tragic case of Ella Kissi-Debrah who was exposed to illegal levels of pollution. The same system which props up the violent policing of our children on the streets is responsible for allowing dangerous infrastructure to be placed in our backyards.

While the media favours atomised, ‘single-issue’ stories, we must recognise that it is only by challenging this injustice system from every necessary angle, as well as by connecting the dots between our daily struggles and global crises that we can truly begin to build a better world for all Black lives. Until black people are no longer seen as disposable, not worthy of the care afforded to other citizens, then we will be there, making noise, taking space and saying it loud and clear that climate change is a Black issue, and that ‘Black Lives Matter’.

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