In mid-September, hundreds of thousands of young people took to the streets protesting the lack of action and accountability from world leaders and corporations to reverse climate change. Seeing photos of my former students participating in the global climate march made my eyes tear up and my heart swell. These are the types of movements that we as social justice educators have been preparing our students for, and it is incredible to watch them confidently step into the spotlight to reclaim ownership over their future.
As adults, it’s crucial we empower our students to speak up about this global crisis. But teaching students to respect the environment and participate in sustainable practices is just one part of tackling the issue. We must also help them understand that climate change and institutional racism go hand in hand.
They need this knowledge to see how we’ve come to this moment and why underrepresented and under-resourced communities are most affected by climate change—and they need to learn this not just when white and Western countries speak out about it.
Without understanding what is at stake and who is affected, our students are little more than empty mouthpieces fated to repeat our mistakes. To help them understand today’s environmental activism and the issues that prompt it, you can start with a few foundational ideas.
Popular conversations about climate change are whitewashed.
We can ask students to pay attention to who contributes the most to climate change as well as whose voices are most amplified. When they absorb information from mainstream news sources, they should ask, “Who is speaking into the microphone the most often; which people hold the most influential positions in governments, companies and nonprofits; and how does this affect which stories about climate change are centered?”
Climate change disproportionately harms people of color.
While it may be simpler to believe that climate change affects everyone equally, that assumption could not be further from the truth. Historically and today, black and brown communities are disproportionately harmed by the effects of pollution and global warming.
These effects take the forms of displacement, barriers to food and clean water, loss of land, unemployment and medical emergencies. Studies have shown that under-resourced communities are much more vulnerable to health problems due to climate change, such as asthma, heat stroke and heart disease—and that they often do not have access to adequate health care.
Activists of color have always been a part of the environmental movement.
Students should also recognize that the environmental movement and civil rights movement were closely linked. Black communities have been active at the forefront of the environmental movement in the United States for generations. They should learn that a pivotal moment of the modern environmental movement in the United States came in September of 1982, when 55 people lay down in the middle of a highway in Warren County, North Carolina, to protest the opening of a toxic waste dump in a predominantly black community.
Today’s environmental movement is often whitewashed, too.
During the global climate strike, we saw how Greta Thunburg helped mobilize millions across the globe. But it is unfair to position Greta as the face of the present climate movement when black, brown and Indigenous children and adults have been fighting to protect the environment for generations.
Educators are in a unique position to push back against the whitewashing of environmental activism and the further erasure of black and brown people by introducing students to other young people doing this work. “Little Miss Flint,” Mari Copeny, for example, has been protesting the lack of clean water in her city since 2014. Nigerian Misimi Isimi says she’s “on a mission to save Lagos from environmental waste.” Teen climate activist Artemisa Xakriabá of the Xakriabá people in Brazil spoke at the Global Climate Strike in New York. Clean water advocate Autumn Peltier, a 14-year-old Anishinaabe-kwe and a citizen of the Wiikwemkoong First Nation, recently addressed the United Nations. And Mexican fourth grader Xóchitl Cruz invented solar-powered water heaters built from recyclable materials.
We can’t talk about environmentalism without talking about colonialism.
It’s not just current activism that’s being whitewashed. Most discussions on this topic erase not only the long history of human influence on the environment but also the efforts of Indigenous peoples to preserve it. Even today, many environmentalists wish for resources to be returned to the land without ever acknowledging the historical impact of colonization on the environment.
Teaching about climate change from a culturally responsive perspective and advocating for immediate policy change require us to recognize how colonization and white supremacy have always gone hand in hand with the destruction of our planet’s natural resources.
There’s a long historical relationship between colonialism and climate change.
We tend to think of climate change as a recent issue. But research suggests humans have been affecting the climate for years. A 2019 University College London study argues that the “Little Ice Age,” which lasted from the 1300s through the 1800s, was exacerbated by a “genocide-generated drop” in carbon dioxide. The researchers concluded that the deaths of entire Indigenous populations due to European colonization resulted in so much unattended land and reforestation that the carbon dioxide levels of the entire planet fell, along with global temperatures.
Conservation efforts can prop up colonial ideas and policies.
If students look to American history, they’ll find people like John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt lauded as foundational conservationists and naturalists. But these men are rarely attributed with the displacement and erasure of Indigenous people due to their brand of environmentalism. Organizations like the National Park Service and the Sierra Club are viewed as the primary forces for environmental protection and conservation. While these organizations have certainly evolved since their conception, we cannot ignore the fact that the creation of national parks such as Glacier, Mount Rushmore and Yosemite were instrumental in the removal of the Indigenous peoples who resided on those lands.
This displacement continues into the present day. In Central and South America, Indigenous communities are often clashing with conservation groups that wish for the land to remain untouched and uninhabited. This practice has earned the name “green colonialism,” and it demonstrates how sometimes the efforts of environmental conservation groups result in the displacement of Indigenous people. For example, in Ecuador, the Cofán people have seen their homelands shrink as conservation groups advocate for more lands to be protected from deforestation and human habitation.
If our students are to advocate for long-term, equitable, systemic, environmental changes, they need to understand the full picture: The current environmental movement has roots that extend far beyond the 21st century, and it is built upon the labor of Indigenous people and people of color.
When we include multiple cultural and historical perspectives in our teaching about environmentalism, our students learn that intent and impact do not always align. Justice cannot serve only one subset of society, especially when that subset is dictated by white supremacist power. Only by seeing the whole picture can our students navigate away from a version of environmentalism that speaks only to those in power and work toward a future where climate change activism promotes the well-being of all people.
Kleinrock is an elementary educator and the author of Start Here, Start Now: A Guide to Antibias and Antiracist Work in Your School Community.