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Al Gore: Climate action is 'bound together' with racial equality and liberation

Environmental campaigners express solidarity with civil rights activists, as protests escalate across the U.S.

Al Gore

Environmental leader Al Gore.

Al Gore has become the latest environmental campaigner to express solidarity with the protestors for racial justice facing increasingly violent crackdowns across the U.S., warning that "the need for climate action is bound together with the struggle for racial equality and liberation."

On a day when huge protests sparked by the death of George Floyd were again met with city-wide curfews and frequent outbreaks of violence — including numerous cases of police using teargas, rubber bullets and baton charges — the former vice president issued a statement declaring he stood with "the peaceful demonstrations across America calling for equal justice now."

Gore also highlighted how there was an environmental component to the protests against the "long-standing injustices borne by black, brown and indigenous people."

"Entrenched, systemic racism in our country has led to disproportionate impacts of pollution on communities of color, along with disparities in income, education, healthcare and more," he said. "Today, African Americans are suffering from COVID-19 more than any other race, in part because their much higher exposure to air pollution increases the mortality rate from the virus. We have a moral obligation to demand equality for all, regardless of race, creed, sexual orientation or economic status. The need for climate action is bound together with the struggle for racial equality and liberation."

Gore's statement followed interventions from a host of environmental leaders and campaigners, including a growing number of businesses that have expressed dismay at both the latest cases of police brutality that sparked the protests, the violent crackdowns on peaceful protestors and President Donald Trump's belligerent response.

Climate Chads are self-identified environmentalists who say they care about pervasive racial inequality and police brutality, but don't believe these issues are related to the climate fight.

Writing on Twitter, Greta Thunberg said it was "devastating to see the development taking place in the USA. Centuries of structural and systematic racism and social injustice won't go away by itself. We need a global structural change. The injustices must come to an end."

A number of major U.S. environmental groups also drew direct links between the campaigns for racial and climate justice.

Writing in response to the high-profile incident that saw Christian Cooper, a black birder, unjustly harassed by a white woman illegally walking her dog off-leash in Central Park, Sierra Club's Michael Brune argued that "just like we need to work hard to fight climate change and protect nature, we need to be active in dismantling the racism that is tearing our country apart."

"We cannot separate these issues," he added. "The companies that have profited from fossil fuels and accelerated the climate crisis are the same ones who have benefited from environmental injustice, colonialism and racism." 

Similarly, the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) issued a statement stressing that "as an organization that envisions a world with clean air, clean water, public lands, and a safe climate that are protected by a just and equitable democracy, we also believe that we are only as safe as the members of our communities who are most at risk."

The group added, "LCV recognizes the leadership of frontline organizations and individuals, and we stand among those calling for justice, accountability, and an end to racial violence."

And in the United Kingdom, WWF chief executive Tanya Steele stressed that everyone has a responsibility to bring an end to racial violence. "Racism should have no place in the things we say, think or do," she wrote. "The killing of George Floyd is another death caused by violent bigotry that we all have a responsibility to end — we need to stand together to fight for our world, our friends and to end racism."

Reflecting on the flurry of statements in support of the protestors, Emily Atkin from influential U.S. climate newsletter Heated warned that despite growing co-operation between environmental and civil rights campaigners, there remained an "insidious form of anti-Blackness within the climate movement."

"This silent racism, environmental justice activists say, is preventing the climate movement from standing in true solidarity with Black Americans as they protest their systemic brutalization by police," she wrote. "And if the movement continues to stay silent while the country burns, they say, the planet will continue to burn alongside it."

Atkin quoted comments from Liz Havstad, executive director of Hip Hop Caucus, a black-centered progressive group, who argued that the willingness of environmental organizations to express solidarity with black communities was "an important step" forward that would have been unimaginable a few years ago. But she added that "anti-Blackness is rampant in the climate and environmental movement. ... It's our responsibility to align our climate and environmental work with the movement for black lives."

It is a stance that, as Atkin noted, has exposed faultlines within the environmental movement, with some campaigners — to whom she assigns the disparaging moniker "climate Chads" — privately arguing that aligning green demands with wider social issues could undermine efforts to build bipartisan support for climate policies.

"Climate Chads are self-identified environmentalists who say they care about pervasive racial inequality and police brutality, but don't believe these issues are related to the climate fight," Atkin explained. "Or if they do, they believe focusing on racial equality 'undercuts' the fight, and limits the climate movement's ability to achieve broad support."

Atkin forcefully rejects such calculations, branding them both "stupid" and anti-black. "Imagine thinking you have a better chance convincing racists to support the climate movement than engaging minorities across the world," she said. "Imagine asking black people to risk their lives to protect a planet full of people who have never, and will never, risk anything to protect theirs, and thinking that's the more successful strategy."

It is a powerful challenge to green campaigners and businesses everywhere that further highlights how the debate on the extent to which calls for climate action and racial justice are aligned is set to intensify still further as protests escalate across the U.S. and elsewhere. And all against a backdrop where the Trump administration is poised to run an election campaign set to be one of the most divisive and dangerous in modern history — a campaign that threatens both the integrity of the U.S. and the stability of the climate.

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