Black Lives and Climate Justice

Exploring the intersection between #BlackLivesMatter, #RacialJustice, #JustTransition #BuildBackBetterScot

Sir Geoff Palmer in our advertisement for the
Black Lives and Climate Justice Event.

Stories were at the heart of Sir Geoff Palmer’s presentation [15 minute video here], in which he explored the intersection between racism and climate.  270 people from the UK and beyond – as far afield as Amsterdam and Silicon Valley – heard him speak at the online event hosted by five community-led Scottish organisations on 8 September 2020. This report summarises the key insights from both Geoff’s presentation and the 20 breakout room discussions that followed.  See it online at   

Racism and Climate | A Long History of Intersection

“The circumstances which black people live in are produced by white people who have no regard for this planet… it’s self-serving greed and it must stop”

During his presentation Geoff recalled a significant legal case brought by Joseph Knight in Edinburgh in 1774 against his master. Knight had been trafficked originally to Jamaica as a slave at a time when a slave had no legal right to life and was considered property in the eyes of the British legal system. 

According to the defence lawyer, slavery was justified on the grounds that only ‘Negroes’ were able to labour in the hot climates where sugar and tobacco crop was grown, suggesting that black bodies were naturally equipped for suffering.  He noted that even when emancipation came in 1834, the equivalent of £17 billion in today’s money was given not to the slaves, but to the plantation owners as compensation for lost ‘property’.

In constructing those plantations that generated so much wealth for their owners at the expense of the suffering of black people, these same white and predominantly European slavers had already felled large numbers of trees, wrecked water systems and caused significant damage to the land and the ecosystems that depended upon it. Even almost 200 years after slavery was abolished, the social and environmental consequences of these actions continue to linger. 

This is but one example, Geoff notes, of the arrangements of white colonialists that have had a sustained impact on the health of black communities and made them more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. He even recalled being in bed one night as a child in Jamaica when the roof of his house was ripped off above him by a hurricane – in earlier times slaves did not even have the trees to protect them.  

In a brief Q&A, Geoff addressed some of the ways we can begin to better conceptualise and combat systemic racism in our society. One prominent theme was the importance of openly and proactively challenging racist views. He recalled a UK politician standing in the 1960s local elections who said to voters, “How would you like your little blond daughter to come home with a big black man?”. That man won the seat. Sir Geoff underscored not only the power of these false narratives, but also our duty to actively work against their normalisation. In particular, he noted the importance of sustained political engagement in helping to achieve change.

Overall Sir Geoff’s talk highlighted the powerful and enduring historical relationship between the climate-related decisions of white people and the quality of life for black people and people of colour. More importantly, he emphasised the necessity of both individual and collective action in dismantling the systems of oppression that tie racism and climate change together.

Breakout Rooms | Key Insights

During Breakout Room discussions, participants were asked to discuss two main questions:

  1. How does this challenge make you feel and what are your thoughts?
  2. What can your organisation and you personally do to address it?

Discussions were broad throughout and many valuable insights were shared by participants.

In discussing how this particular challenge resonated with participants, a myriad responses emerged.  Participants highlighted connections between race and climate justice – past and present.  

They felt overwhelmed, angry, desperate, weary, frustrated, grieving and ashamed; they felt sad that it seemed to have taken the death of unarmed individuals like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd at the hands of US police forces to make so many people realise that black lives matter, even though they have always mattered and black people have always suffered at the hands of systemic racism not just in the US, but in the UK and the rest of Europe as well. 

However, participants also felt a powerful sense of hope, gratitude and inspiration that so many had come together at this event and showed such a willingness to have the difficult conversations necessary to kickstart change.

In addressing the second discussion question regarding what could be done personally and within their organisations to tackle the problem of climate justice and racism, participants came up with many suggestions. Some of the most common emerging from across the Breakout Rooms included:

  • Educate ourselves and others
  • Partner and act with communities both here and abroad  
  • Notice how we and others use privilege  
  • Address the dominance of the white middle-class in environmentalist movements 
  • Be prepared to have difficult conversations and to trust scientific voices
  • Raise the profile of inequalities from a health and climate perspective  
  • Support, promote and give a platform to BAME artists
  • Move away from ‘black-white’ and ‘3rd world’ colonialist language
  • Support young people and amplify young voices
  • Consider sustainable approaches to tackling Western consumption

Discussion reports containing a more detailed account of some of the points raised in each breakout room have been provided below, and were compiled by an assigned notetaker among each group.

Additionally, participants put together a wide-ranging list of resources for our future use, including an attached excerpt from New Scientist on science’s institutional racism. These resources have been collated and listed at the end of this report.

Unfortunately, no discussion reports were completed for Breakout Rooms 8, 15, 17 and 20.