Why climate activism needs to decolonise

Rab Ferguson 20 September 2021

The Global South is already dealing with the effects of climate change, yet the media chooses to centre white activists

Imagine your typical "climate change activist". One you'd see pictures of in the news around COP26. You might picture a teenager, who'd previously skipped school as part of Fridays for the Future. Or a professional looking adult, who felt they needed to take action and joined Extinction Rebellion.

Maybe even an older hippie sort, who's been fighting this fight for years. Most likely, you're imagining someone from the West. The United Kingdom, or the US, or somewhere Nordic. It's probable that the person you're imagining is white.

There's a reason behind this. It conforms to the current media narrative we're seeing around climate change, which tends to include imagery of groups of activists who predominantly fit the descriptions above.

Some outlets are sympathetic with the activists, portraying them as fighting for the future. Others prefer to attack the activists as hypocrites, and in doing so deflect away from the actual environmental issues.

Either way, they're all showing pictures of the same people. Climate change is viewed through a white lens, with all but the unreliable sources now agreeing on the reality of global warming as a risk to our society's future. But there's a problem with this story.

An Extinction Rebellion poster saying "Act Now"

It is white privilege to describe climate change as a problem of the future. The narrative of climate change as a ticking doomsday clock is excluding and dangerous. I'm aware there may be backlash against this idea. “Why make it about race and nationality, climate change affects everyone?” It's probably worth pointing out that there are some aspects of how the story is currently told that do appeal to me. As an author of young adult fiction, the framing of "plucky teenagers stand up against governments and giant corporations to fight for the future" is one I'd naturally be drawn to.

"It is white privilege to describe climate change as a problem of the future"

The thing is, people across the world are already suffering and dying because of climate change, in particular people from Indigenous communities.

The United Nations have a list of examples of this, including Indigenous people in the Kalahari desert who now have to live around government drilled holes to access water, peoples in the Arctic region whose food sources and landscape have been impacted, and villagers in Bangladesh who had to design floating vegetable gardens to prevent food loss due to flooding.

To use an unsubtle metaphor, if a street full of homes is burning and the news only talks about risk to the rest of the city—while saying nothing about the people who actually live on the street—there's a problem with the media.

A poster saying "There is no Planet B"

There's no shortage of Indigenous activists to promote the voices of. There's Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, a member of the Mbororo people who works to preserve traditional knowledge of Lake Chad—a freshwater lake in the Sahara desert that is critical to many people's survival and is reducing in size due to global warming.

There's Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, who was raised in line with traditional Mexican culture, and was part of the Juliana v. United States case to sue the US government for failing to act on the climate.

There's Amelia Telford, an Aboriginal and South Sea Islander woman who witnessed the impact of land erosion on her hometown and founded SEED, Australia's first Indigenous youth climate network. It might seem ironic that I, a white westerner who writes about the climate, am suggesting we should focus less on people like me. But voices similar to mine have been heard from a lot, and the true urgency of the climate crisis is still not recognised.

"There's no shortage of Indigenous activists to promote the voices of"

There's a counter argument to all this, which is that by making the impact of climate change more relatable to its majority audience, western media will inspire more action. Alongside erasing real people's suffering and misunderstanding the varied demographics that tune into western news, reporting in this way also loses the immediacy of climate change. No matter how much the narrative of a ticking countdown is pushed, the implication is always that there is some time left. If we acknowledge that climate change is a problem now, that people across the world are suffering now, the argument can be made to act now.

A young African boy holding a mango seedling

C02 emissions from the West have accelerated climate change, while poorer nations are baring the brunt of the crisis today

So, do we stop talking altogether about the future impact of climate change on a white western society? Well, in my new book Landfill Mountains I wrote a novel about young people surviving in the post-climate change remains of a (diverse) western society, so unsurprisingly that's not my view.

Of course, safety and security for the children of the future—regardless of their nationality or ethnicity—matters. And excuse my cynicism, but when it comes to the leadership of huge fossil fuel corporations, risk to their own future seems a more effective narrative to entice change than any amount of current human suffering. But let's not tell half a story either, or worse, neglect those who are already paying the price.

Rab Ferguson's new book, Landfill Mountains, published by Onwe, is out now. 

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