• 1.5 degrees

The Split in the Climate Movement

Updated: Sep 17

By Caleigh Vergeer


Doubtless, when Greta Thunberg stepped onto the stage of the United Nations in 2019, at the age of 16, she felt nervous. Nevertheless, she boldly stepped forth and delivered a speech that shook the world by its shoulders, astounding everyone with three simple words: “how dare you.” Her fame grows as she continues to act and call out politicians — doing so bravely, passionately, and intelligently.

But hold on. Why is a rich, powerful, white girl the most prominent face in the climate movement? Where are the other voices? Where are the people who have experienced environmental injustice first hand?

Photo credit: Susan Melkisethian

The climate movement as a whole is split into two groups: (1) the majority white, large-scale environmental organizations that receive the bulk of funding and publicity, who focus mainly conservation and sustainability and (2) the environmental justice organizations, led mainly by people of color, that are locally-based and focused on fighting environmental racism. In order to make change in the most effective and equitable way, we need to unite the climate movement and make a diverse space where the people impacted right now by environmental injustice—mainly people of color and poor people—are at the forefront.


Demographically, mainstream climate groups are very white. A 2014 report by Green 2.0, a campaign for diverse environmental organizations, measured the diversity of the 40 largest environmental non-governmental organizations: it found that, on average, people of color make up 27% of the whole staff and only 14% of the senior staff. Even more locally-based mainstream organizations, like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, are not diverse: the foundation’s staff is 4.5% people of color, even though about half of the population which it serves is of color. These organizations do not represent the communities that they serve. Unfortunately, the problem is circular, for once a space is primarily white, it may become less welcoming to people of color. Carl Pope, the Executive Director of the Sierra Club admitted, “If you go to a Sierra Club meeting, the people are mostly white, largely over 40, almost all college-educated, whose style is to argue with each other. That may not be a welcoming environment.”


This lack of diversity is not because fewer people of color care about the earth. A 2010 Yale survey found that 89% of the black survey participants supported regulating carbon emissions as opposed to 78% of white participants. While black people are only a portion of the people of color who advocate for the environment, this data rebukes the excuse that fewer people of color are interested in environmental activism. As the executive director of Green For All, Nikki Silvestri, stated, “There is a lot of rumor and speculation surrounding what people of color think about climate change and the environment. People of color care deeply about the environment and the impacts of climate change. We understand the urgency of these threats because we experience the effects every single day.”


Because the mainstream movement is mostly white and upper class, it loses many of the voices of people who can speak about what it is to experience the effects of climate change and environmental racism, the voices that help shape our understanding of how interconnected racism is with our climate. Thus, most mainstream groups remain focused on air, water, trees, and animals, but not people of color. As Van Jones, a social commentator, green job advisor to the Obama Administration, and a co-founder of numerous influential activism organizations, explains: “We essentially have a racially segregated environmental movement. We’re too polite to say that. Instead, we say we have an environmental justice movement and a mainstream movement.” But separate is not equal.


When it comes to funding, environmental justice groups receive less support than the mainstream, majority-white groups. The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy found that from 2007-2009, only 15% of environmental grants benefited minority communities, and only 11% went towards social justice action. The rest of the grants went to mainstream organizations. Additionally, a 2001 report from the Washington Post stated that the environmental justice movement received only 5% of the conservation funding from foundations, while, yet again, the rest of the funding went to mainstream organizations. This unequal funding probably results from a lack of diversity in the funding foundations themselves and also because the larger, whiter groups have more publicity. Even though activists of color are advocating for the environment, they are not given the same resources and voice as the majority-white groups.


The solution to these inequities is deceptively simple: mainstream climate groups need to focus on diversity and listening to and collaborating with local environmental justice groups. Furthermore, without this collaboration, mainstream groups could create climate solutions that breed environmental injustice. For example, in New York City, a Sunset Park recycling plant erected a 160-foot tall windmill—the largest in the city—to generate energy. While this windmill is groundbreaking progress for sustainability, the pieces of these windmills were transported on ships that emitted masses of diesel into the community near the water. By asking the residents and local groups what they thought should be done, perhaps they could have avoided the problem while creating more trust.

Sebi Medina-Tayac speaking at The Youth Climate March lead by Zero Hour

Yet again, Greta Thunberg comes into the conversation; she has been working with Tokatawin Iron Eyes of the Lakota people, an activist for indigenous rights. There are more youth climate activists than just Greta, and many of them are working right to create powerful environmental justice movements. Anyone can help centralize environmental justice in our entire climate movement by educating themselves and others on how local communities are impacted by our actions. Anyone can bring more funding and publicity to environmental justice leaders and groups by simply googling what these advocates are saying or donating to their causes. Find out what activist Sebi Medina-Tayac, a Piscataway rights activist and organizer for the People’s Climate Movement and the Zero Hour Youth Climate Movement here in Washington, DC, is doing, and get involved. Learn about 13 year-old Mari Copeny, also known as Little Miss Flint, who has been advocating for Flint Michigan during and after the Flint Water Crisis since she was 8 years old. Read of how Isra Hirsi, the daughter of Rep. Ilhan Omar, co-founded the US Youth Climate Strike and calls for the leadership of Muslim and Black youth in the climate movement. There are countless more activists to name. There are also some key organizations that bridge the gap between the two movements, such as The Sunrise Movement, a youth group of climate activists that spans America and champions racial justice. When choosing which groups to support, look for organizations like Sunrise. On the large-scale, we need a diverse and collaborative climate movement, but on the small scale, every citizen can make it a priority to listen to the voices of those who understand the role of race in the climate movement.


DC Sunrise Hub is Adapting to COVID-19


Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said it best: “Without collective action to create inclusive workplaces, broaden our community partnerships, and diversify our voice, we will not be equipped to confront the great environmental problems of our time.”


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