This story is part of the VICE Creators Summit, a series of panels and workshops to co-create futures for a habitable planet. Find out more here.
Climate change is here. It’s happening and it’s affecting us all.
Findings from the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report show that the world is now locked into severe climate change effects that will inevitably impact most people. It’s a bleak outlook but activists offer hope, saying that reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in the coming decades could still mitigate some effects of global warming and its catastrophic impacts on those most affected. Every little change we make matters.
The world is more environmentally aware now, more than ever before, yet climate activism remains niche. To bring in more people to the cause and amplify these efforts, we need to wake up to the reality that the climate crisis overlaps with other problems we care about. All of the world’s issues are interconnected, which means activists need to do more than just talk about climate change in isolation.
Instead of advocating for a rigid no-meat diet that’s inaccessible to many and insensitive to some cultural practices, or banning plastic straws, which some have called out for being ableist, we should move towards an inclusive approach that takes into consideration systemic reasons behind the way people consume the way they do.
Let’s stop singling out individuals for not living up to arbitrary standards of sustainable lifestyles, and start standing in solidarity across identities and communities. Climate justice isn’t just about justice for the planet, it’s about justice for all people.
VICE asked some activists from around the world about how they’re advocating for greater inclusivity within the climate movement.
In the climate and vegan movements, we see a lot of cultural ignorance and flat-out racism. The animal rights movement is currently dominated by a few white voices from the global north. There is a big failure to recognize the origins of ethical vegetarianism in Asia and a movement to erase and alienate voices of non-white people from the movement.
You see this particularly in the way China and Chinese people are presented in both movements. Chinese animal rights activists have been working to end the Yulin Festival, China’s annual dog meat festival, for a long time, yet the country is demonized for eating dog meat. But what about the Swiss? Some of them also eat cat and dog meat—why don’t we hear anything about that? The continued emphasis on other cultural eating habits as “weird” or “cruel” is white supremacy in action. We should be able to advocate for animals without drawing on these tropes.
“In order for the vegan movement to become truly inclusive, we need to improve accessibility, which means that addressing poverty, racism, and inequality, are vital to the movement.”
People discover an injustice and rightly want to tackle it, but they often fail to take into account systemic issues that prevent people from making changes. Being able to consider where your food comes from is a privilege. We need to acknowledge that poorer communities, and often communities of color, often lack access to fresh and healthy food. In order for the vegan movement to become truly inclusive, we need to improve accessibility, which means that addressing poverty, racism, and inequality, are vital to the movement. Intersectionality in the movement is essential if we want to create systemic change for animals.
Calling youth climate activists that emerge from other countries the “Greta” of their countries sets Greta Thunberg as the default. She becomes the center of influence, and it’s additionally problematic because we’re centering a white child in a crisis that could mean the extinction of humanity. What about the protection of brown or Black kids? What about my reality, and my people, who know the climate crisis not as words, but as violent natural disasters? We’ve seen pain, suffering, and death. We’ve had our homes destroyed, and we’ve lost family. The prophets of climate justice cannot be ones who haven’t experienced the damage.
“The moment you allow one person to be the sole arbitrator of justice, justice in and of itself is in question.”
This isn’t an attack on her—I’m friends with Greta—but rather a critique on how she’s received. We shouldn’t aspire to call ourselves the Gretas of anything, because it’s not a brand. The moment you allow one person to be the sole arbitrator of justice, justice in and of itself is in question. To build a more inclusive climate movement, we ought to look at climate movements that existed long before school strikes—Indigenous actions.
Executive Director of SustainUS, United States
In the climate movement, we still see a lack of diversity in who is leading the conversation. We also see systemic biases that disproportionately exclude relief to queer people, especially trans folks, in the wake of natural disasters. We need to be considerate of these gaps and remedy them by ensuring that the most marginalized are supported during these difficult situations.
“Colonialism is the root cause of the climate crisis, and it is also a system that has actively erased the beautiful role queerness played in pre-colonial society.”
Queer liberation and climate justice are connected because the oppression comes from the same place: colonialism and upholding the status quo. These forces that push queerness into the margins also prevent us from seeing beyond what we are conditioned to see, towards the systemic changes that need to happen to solve the climate crisis. Colonialism is the root cause of the climate crisis, and it is also a system that has actively erased the beautiful role queerness played in pre-colonial society.
We must create a cross-cultural, inter-identity coalition to massively transform where we’re at. Queer folks’ perspectives are essential to success because our communities experience hardship and marginalization. We have a unique contribution to understanding the climate crisis and providing radically imaginative solutions.
Marinel Sumook Ubaldo
The climate movement and many prominent figures within it have spoken about population issues, saying that there are “too many people” on the planet, that we should have less children in order to reduce emissions. But I don’t think lessening the population is the only solution: There are just 100 corporations responsible for over 70 percent of the world’s emissions. We need to focus on making our leaders and the big corporations accountable for fueling climate change, rather than putting the burden on individuals.
“While individuals have to do their part, too, it’s the system that needs to change.”
Putting the burden on the individual is historically a greenwashing technique used by big corporations. Instead, I always advocate for system change. After all, we won’t have climate justice if major fossil fuel companies continue with business as usual. We need to call on our leaders to take drastic action on that front because they have the power, authority, and resources to enact systemic change. While individuals have to do their part, too, it’s the system that needs to change.
Stefanie Lyn Kaufman-Mthimkhulu
Founding Director of Project LETS, United States
Back when the zero-waste movement first had its moment, many people advocated banning straws, which was met with huge backlash because it was so ableist. I am not surprised that an entire movement could ignore Disabled people, even though we’re the largest marginalized and oppressed group in the world. We like to find ways to make Disabled people the scapegoats, the burdens, the ones who use too many resources and need too many things. That view comes from a white supremacist, settler colonial, anti-Black, ableist notion of what it means to be a whole and valuable person.
“Disabled people have valuable skills, like interdependence, that we can share while navigating apocalyptic times.”
It’s classic to pick an individual behavior—like not using plastic straws—and say that it will move us towards the solution, without looking at the larger structural patterns and behaviors that are impacting the climate in profoundly more destructive ways. The fact that that happened shows us that there’s very little cross-movement solidarity, that many are not in genuine relationship and community with Disabled people, and that ableism is still the underbelly of every system of oppression.
We need to talk more deeply about how Disabled people are more vulnerable to the climate crisis due to our ableist society that fails to value our lives, and not because we use wheelchairs, have chronic pain, or need oxygen machines. Disabled people have valuable skills, like interdependence, that we can share while navigating apocalyptic times.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
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