6 Reasons We Need an Intersectional Approach to Climate Change

by Maddy Winters

7 December 2015

There’s a major problem with the climate change movement in the Global North – an undercurrent of large, well-funded NGOs calling the shots, shaping the narrative and co-opting and commodifying the struggle.

This was cast starkly into light at last week’s London Climate March when stewards from Avaaz and Oxfam attempted to cover the indigenous collective The Wretched of the Earth’s ‘British Imperialism Causes Climate Injustice’ placard, and unsuccessfully attempted to push the Global South bloc to the back of the march, despite having previously agreed it could lead. They even called the police when the bloc refused to move from the front.

These kinds of NGOs routinely attempt to undermine more radical elements of the movement, framing us as a sanitised, apolitical, homogeneous mass, rather than a serious, political drive to resist neoliberal capitalism and address the societal relationship with nature it is predicated upon.

Environmental activists cannot talk about climate change without being absolutely clear who and what is driving it and who is suffering. We are not all equally responsible for causing climate change and we will not be equally affected by it:

1. Climate change is racialised.

It is without doubt the poorest in the world first and worst affected by climate disasters – people of colour in the Global South.

Not only are these the people least responsible for emissions, but the very same who have borne the brunt of western colonial practices for centuries.

The Kyoto protocol’s ‘flexibility mechanisms’ allow rich countries to neglect their responsibility for emissions reductions by exporting them to the Global South. The most popular initiative, the Clean Development Mechanism has resulted in routine land grabs and human rights abuses. In Honduras, more than 20 peasants were killed for occupying the land to resist the Aguan biogas project.

Climate change is a supercharged element of this colonialism – a kind where coloniser can destroy without ever leaving their land of origin.

2. Climate change is gendered.

Women of colour in the Global South face the greatest danger from climate disaster. They undertake the lion’s share of care work in crisis as every other day, expected to find or build temporary homes while continuing to find food and care for children, the wounded and sick. Violence against women has been seen to increase during climate crises, such as when Hurricane Mitch hit Central America in 1998. Women avoided using emergency shelters due to fear of violence or harassment; an extremely common problem whenever women are displaced from their homes.

The eco-consumerist campaigns of big NGOs typically focus on the domestic sphere and therefore women’s behaviour is challenged most, despite men making the decisions of the states and transnational corporations driving and profiting from climate change.

The foundation of capitalism is the exploitation of labour power and resources deemed free – the ‘raw materials’ of the non-human world and the reproductive power of women. Our climate movement must recognise ecocide and misogyny as systemically linked exploitations and tackle the system that underpins them.

3. Climate change strikes along class lines.

When Superstorm Sandy hit New York City, housing projects in working class, predominantly black communities suffering from decades of official neglect were devastated by the storm, with water and electrical systems completely knocked out for weeks. People who relied on state support and public transport were left to die, trapped in their homes, while wealthy families were evacuated in their SUVs. Sexual violence was pervasive during the aftermath as women in these communities suffered abuse from white aid workers.

Rather than centring working class communities, our organising spaces are dominated by predominantly white, middle class NGO employees. They regularly speak over and actively silence the communities they claim to want to help, preventing community-driven collaboration that more effectively addresses climate issues.

4. It is a migrant rights issue.

While borders are being closed in the name of combating one form of terrorism, the slow insidious terrorism of rising sea levels afflicting places like the Pacific Islands continues with international impunity.

To date, one fifth of the Pacific Islanders of Tuvalu have been forced to flee their homes. The island’s closest neighbour and big polluter, Australia, refuses to accept any Tuvaluan climate refugees.

The proposal to support climate refugees has been dropped from the UN climate negotiations happening right now in Paris. Displacement is environmental violence. We must demand freedom to move, stay and return.

5. We need to step into line behind frontline communities.

NGOs tend to postulate a future catastrophe, an image invoked to create a certain kind of pressure – one which allows time for further UN negotiation, and even sometimes for the market to save us (read: white people) before disaster strikes.

Such an appeal to western fear usually leads to an expansion of state authority, increased repression of dissent and a legitimisation of any kind of project done in the name of security of the Global North. By focusing on the future catastrophe, already real and existing catastrophes in the Global South are made invisible. Current disastrous and exploitative relations seem relatively better and therefore relatively acceptable.

Indigenous communities on the frontlines are already suffering and already dying. They ought be the priority in any action taken in the name of combating the crisis and we in the Global North should absolutely be accountable to them. Those resisting extractivism and climate colonialism on the frontline have an understanding like nobody else. They made the connections and exposed them long before the rest of us.

6. We need a caring climate movement.

A radical movement does not imply we should develop combative, macho cultures in our activist communities. When escalating our campaigns we often forget to properly value support roles and welfare work in the movement – the work typically undertaken by women and non-binary people.

This care must also extend to supporting those who choose to use more militant tactics. Some people don’t have the privilege of engaging in symbolic actions – they are fighting for their lives. NGOs frequently demand non-violence of the entire climate movement, placing their clean media narrative over and above the right of frontline communities to fight effectively for survival, and of street protestors to effectively defend themselves from police.


We need a fundamental critique of current conditions and power relations that is not provided by the big corporate NGOs. We need to create a dialogue between the different but connected movements and struggles for liberation and environmental justice, otherwise social and ecological interests will be played out against each other. For this it is necessary to break the view that climate change is solely an environmental issue – a simple problem of excess carbon dioxide in the backdrop of an otherwise welfare-enhancing system.

Instead, we must posit it as a fundamental crisis in our societal relationship with nature and clearly name climate change as the most visceral symptom of white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy. If we fail to do so, if we ignore the intersectional character of climate change, we can easily fool ourselves that liberal reformism works, rather than seeing the full social transformation climate change requires. Our praxis must be nothing short of revolutionary.

Photo: Carol Menna/Facebook

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