The term intersectional was coined in 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a leading thinker and scholar in the field of critical race theory. The term was originally used to explain the oppression of African American women in the feminist movement. In simple terms it explained how feminism that does not address the fact that women come from different classes, ethnicities, abilities and sexualities etc. – favours the needs of those who are white, middle-class, heterosexual, cisgender and able-bodied.
Intersectionality is now used more broadly to highlight how aspects of a person’s social and political identities (e.g. gender, sex, race, class, sexuality, religion, disability, physical appearance and more) combine to create unique modes of discrimination and privilege. It is a concept that transfers significantly into environmentalism and the impacts of the climate and ecological crisis.
The term intersectional environmentalist was defined by black climate activist Leah Thomas in the height of the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement following the murder of George Floyd:
“Intersectional Environmentalism is an inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for both the protection of people and the planet. It identifies the ways in which injustices happening to marginalised communities and the earth are interconnected. It brings injustices done to the most vulnerable communities, and the earth, to the forefront and does not minimise or silence social inequality. Intersectional environmentalism advocates for justice for people and the planet”Leah Thomas, Climate Activist
The easiest way to understand why intersectionality is so essential to the environmental movement is to examine how different marginalised groups are more negatively affected by the climate crisis and ecological crisis. Here we will examine a selection of examples:
Black and Non-black People of Colour
The term ‘Environmental Racism’ describes the fact that minority and marginalised communities are forced to live in closer proximity to environmentally degraded locations. Communities of colour are more likely to suffer from air pollution and be situated nearer environmentally hazardous locations such as fracking sites, waste incinerators and landfill. The evidence for this is very clear in the US but also in the UK.
In terms of the consequences of climate change, people of colour are more likely to be affected by heatwaves, crop failures and extreme weather in the Global South. However, the evidence is also clear in the Global North for example with Hurricane Katrina, the worst damage was found in predominantly Black neighbourhoods, yet relief was inadequate and slower compared with that provided in predominantly white and higher-income neighbourhoods.
Both black and Latinx groups have actually been found to be more concerned about the climate crisis than white people, but often have less resources and resilience to act due to other overriding concerns such as structural racism and inequality. On top of this there are the issues of historical racism within environmentalism and ongoing lack of inclusivity and intersectionality within the climate movement, something which hopefully is beginning to change.
Before colonialism, indigenous communities were living in balance with the land, sustaining both themselves and nature for thousands of years without the requirement for harmful extractive processes. As indigenous peoples live closer to the land, they are often the first to recognise the effects of climate change and feel the brunt of impacts the hardest, it can threaten their very existence. Few countries recognise indigenous land rights, with ancestral land often being used without proper consultation for damaging industries such as mining, logging, pipelines, large scale agriculture and more.
Ironically, conservation programs based on the concept that humans should be separated from nature to preserve it has led to forced eviction and harm to indigenous communities, without recognising their custodian relationship with the environment which is sustainable for both them and surrounding ecosystems. They have also suffered violence and displacement without consent or consultation due to renewable projects such as hydroelectric dams, wind energy and biofuels.
Displacement due to climate change is already a growing phenomenon expected to increase exponentially as temperatures rise, and disproportionately affect already vulnerable areas in the Global South. Between 2008 and 2015, the UNHCR estimates 22.5 million people were displaced by climate related events.
Displacement may be caused directly by extreme weather events such as flooding, hurricanes and droughts, but also due to secondary events driven by climate instability like conflict, economic failure and political unrest. Estimates vary but it has been suggested there may be 200 million climate migrants by 2050. More protection and recognition of climate refugees is essential for the future, alongside empathy and fair solutions from the countries in the Global North rather than heightening hostility.
Studies have shown women are more likely to be affected by climate change than men in numerous ways. As primary care-givers in many communities, women are more likely to be affected by drought and water-shortages as resources become scarcer and a greater distance to walk to. Women are also more likely to suffer human-rights abuses in the aftermath of disasters such as human-trafficking or sexual violence at temporary accommodation or as refugees.
The LGBTQ+ community are also likely to suffer more from the consequences of climate-related disasters, for example being denied relief and facing discrimination. For example, during hurricane Katrina trans people faced discrimination in emergency shelters including being turned away.
Climate change related events are much more likely to impact those without stable housing. LQBTQ+ people are more likely to be homeless, for example 24% of homeless youth in the UK are from the LGBTQ+ community.
People with Disabilities
People with disabilities are more likely to suffer from climate events due to a range of issues depending on the disability. They may be less able to evacuate or migrate due to limited mobility or impaired senses. They may be more vulnerable to contracting diseases and suffer from limited health services either following disasters or due to diseases made more likely due to climate change or environmental degradation (coronavirus as a clear example of how pandemics disproportionately affect people with disabilities).
Disabled people are also more likely to find it difficult to get involved with activist groups and decision making, even though it is essential that they are included in research, response and solutions to climate change.
It should come as no surprise that the richest, whitest countries are the most responsible for the climate crisis and yet suffer the consequences of it the least. It is also the same systems of extraction and exploitation fuelled by capitalism and colonialism that fuel both the climate crisis and oppression and inequality.
Fighting for oppressed communities is not an optional add-on to environmentalism but needs to be at the very core of it. Mostly because of course we should protect these groups but also because we need these groups within the movement: Climate activism has much to learn from history’s most successful social movements for example the civil rights movement, the suffragettes and the LGBT rights movement. Indigenous experience and wisdom gives us knowledge which can elevate and add to what we learn from science. Diverse teams have also been proven to be smarter and lead to better decisions-making, and studies have found that when women are involved in group decisions, there are more likely to be wins for conservation.
So, in reality what does this mean and what can we do? It means uplifting the voices of marginalised people in the environmental movement, it means not just campaigning for a zero carbon world but for a Just Transition which prioritises the needs of oppressed communities. It means better education about our colonial and racist history, it means making activist spaces more inclusive, it means not just fighting for the environment, but for black lives, women’s rights, indigenous rights, LGBTQ+ rights, refugee rights, disability rights and all other inequalities.
But don’t just listen to me, listen to and uplift the voices of all of those speaking out from marginalised groups. Please find a list of resources and accounts to follow below who have provided all the inspiration for this article:
Resources and Links
A non-exhaustive list of Intersectional Voices and groups in the Environmental Movement (Instagram handles):