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The roots of the climate crisis are colonialism, inequality and racism – not generational failure

The climate crisis is not the result of one generation's failure, but of a whole system that has failed. To fix it, we need to work together across generations and demand unprecedented systemic change, write climate activists Selma de Montgomery and Esther Michelsen Kjeldahl in this article.

Written by Esther Michelsen Kjeldahl & Selma de Montgomery

Translated by Ianthé

Originally published in Danish by Information

The generational conflict fills much of the climate debate. But the failure of the older generations is only one dimension of a multidimensional global crisis.

It is true that we young people are paying the price for a crisis that we have not created ourselves. It is also true that the great global climate movement only gained momentum after young people around the world began to take to the streets to demand change.

When the global climate movement flared up in 2018, there was a need to do away with outdated ways of thinking and a years-long passivity from the leaders of the western world. Nevertheless, we believe it is high time that the broad climate debate emerges from the dominant shadow of the generational conflict.

Instead of pointing fingers at each other for generations, we should turn our eyes to the system we are all born into.

Colonialism is to blame for the climate crisis

In recent years, we have seen the connection between colonialism, racism, inequality, the oppression of women and other gender minorities, and how these power dynamics play a central role in the climate crisis.

That’s thanks to a massive outreach effort by a number of climate justice activists and academics who are black, brown or of indigenous descent – including Vanessa Nakate, Jamie Margolin, Leah Thomas, Vasna Ramasar, Manna Bilan and Jessica Petersen.

The climate crisis did not arise from nothing. It is a symptom of mindsets and systems that have existed for centuries. Yes, CO2 emissions took off when the Scotsman James Watt invented the modern steam engine in the second half of the 18th century, which led to an explosion in the consumption of coal and oil. But it wasn’t just one single invention that made the climate crisis possible. It was an entire colonial system and a particular mindset that enabled the limitless growth and exploitation of resources and people, that is so central to the climate crisis.

In fact, the seeds of the climate and biodiversity crisis were sown when the first European ships set sail to ‘discover’ the world in the early 15th century. The mindset of European colonialists was that everything can – and should – be exploited: land, water, forests and people. They did not accept that anything or anyone could have value in itself. In the eyes of the white man, indigenous land was reduced to a resource. Failure to exploit simply meant lost profit.

Indigenous peoples have for centuries warned that this mindset is destructive. As Josefa Cariño Tauli, who belongs to the Ibaloi-Kankanaey Igorot people and is the policy coordinator of the UN Global Youth Biodiversity Network, explains, indigenous peoples carry the awareness that we are responsible for maintaining what sustains us. Everyone should learn from this, during crucial times so that we can safeguard a sustainable and just future for all.

But the knowledge of indigenous peoples has been systematically ignored throughout history.

The distribution of power must change

The colonialist idea that black, brown and indigenous peoples are worth less than whites is also clearly seen in the negligence of the global north towards the people of the global south who are currently suffering the consequences of the climate crisis. A climate crisis that the global north has created and continues to benefit from.

The US and EU countries, 28 countries together, account for almost 50 percent of historical CO2 emissions, while African countries, 54 countries together, account for only three percent.

The diametrically different views of the value of caring for the earth, water, forest, ecosystems, humans and animals are reflected in the fact that 80 percent of the remaining biodiversity on the planet is protected by indigenous peoples.

Unfortunately, indigenous peoples make up less than five percent of the world’s population. What this extreme statistic tells us is that the Western way of doing things is not the solution to the biodiversity crisis, and that indigenous knowledge must be brought to the forefront of the mainstream climate debate.

An alternative to becoming part of the simplistic ‘us and them’ generational conflict is to take an intersectional and thus anti-racist approach to the climate crisis.

Illustration by Oli88

An unbalanced generational conflict

The term ‘intersectionality’ was coined in 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw, an American philosopher, civil rights activist and critical race theory researcher. Intersectional analysis recognises that individuals experience the world differently depending on which and how many oppressive systems they live under.

Whereas a white lesbian cis woman may be oppressed by sexism and homophobia, she is not oppressed by racism and transphobia, which a black lesbian trans woman is.

The intersectional approach is relevant in the analysis of the climate crisis because it provides a deeper understanding of how crises affect differently and how the overlap of oppressive structures plays a central role in this. People with lower incomes are more likely to live in poor quality housing, which is therefore more vulnerable to flooding. As racialized people often have lower incomes as a result of racialised structures in society, a higher proportion of racialized people will be vulnerable to extreme weather. This creates an overlap between racism, class inequality and vulnerability to the climate crisis.

The tendency for racialized people to be generally more vulnerable to pollution and the consequences of the climate crisis is called ‘environmental racism’, and its many aspects are highlighted by the climate community Collective Against Environmental Racism.

The richer people are, the more they pollute. The world’s richest one percent pollute twice as much as the poorest 50 percent. In fact, the richest 10% have emitted 52% of the emissions of the last 25 years. That in itself is extreme. Moreover, the ten richest in the world are all men, while 80% of the world’s climate refugees, according to a UN estimate, are women.

So, roughly speaking, it is women who pay the price for (some) men’s pollution. Here we see another overlap between gender and class differences that affect how much one is personally affected by the climate crisis.

The climate crisis is pulling threads up through 500 years of history, and its roots are spreading like a cobweb between various destructive mindsets, structures, injustices and hierarchies of power that still play a significant role today.

The multidimensional and historical analysis of the climate crisis may seem overly complex. But the fact is that we live in a complex world, and our analysis of the climate crisis should reflect this.

For if we do not understand a crisis and its origin, but continue to rummage around in an abstract and unvarying generational conflict, then how should we hope to be able to resolve it?

About the authors

Esther Michelsen Kjeldahl (1994) is a writer and climate activist in the green student movement. She has an MSc Philosophy and Public Policy, London School of Economics and is currently hosting the radio programme ‘Ungdomsmagt’ on 24syv. In 2021, she took part in the climate documentary 70/30 by Phie Ambo alongside her co-activist Selma de Montgomery. In 2020, she published her first book ‘Vi er sammen om at mærke det.’

Selma de Montgomery (2005) is a Danish youth climate organizer. In 2021, she co-founded “Ungdommens Klimaoprør”. She starred in the climate documentary 70/30 by Phie Ambo alongside fellow activist Esther Kjeldahl, and is an active voice in the public climate debate

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