People of colour’s voices have long been underrepresented in climate change discourse. The University of Nottingham’s Dr. Charles Ogunbode is on a mission to address this imbalance, co-leading a landmark study in climate perspectives - Spotlight: How People of Colour Experience and Engage with Climate Change in Britain. We asked him about the study’s findings, and what needs to change…
Please tell us a bit about you and your work?
If there’s anything that summarises the work it’s that it all comes back to who tells our story, in the broader context of what is happening in the country. I grew up in Nigeria; starting out wanting to be a conservationist, but I soon realised that a lot of the big issues weren’t really about science, or ecology. They were about people. I also realised how white, European, and North American voices dominated the narrative about Africa. My journey brought me into the domain of climate change, where I found the same kind of dominance by Global Northern interests.
The UK usually has very limited representation and input from people of colour (POC) in the environmental sector. If you actually look around, this is a multicultural society, where there’s people with different interests, a diversity of views, and that’s what makes it a nice place to be. But that doesn't necessarily get reflected, particularly in the environmental space - in activism, policymaking, and the jobs that are out there. Addressing that, identifying it, tackling it and finding solutions is a big part of the work that I’ve been doing.
What were the key findings of your research, and were there any unexpected or noteworthy results?
Yes, number one was the kind of experiences that people talked about - the vast majority of people of colour in this study mentioned the prominence of heatwaves; we know that people of colour are more likely to live in urban areas, so these impacts are much greater for them. Secondly, when we asked people about the barriers in terms of participating and getting involved with climate change or activism, one of the main barriers was people felt like they didn't have enough understanding of the issue. But I don't think this should be equated with POC not having awareness - everything we do, our entire existence is affected, is touched by climate change, we exist in this climate all the time, you cannot not be aware of the climate.
The real issue here is language; the language of climate change has been made to be exclusive, unduly complicated. There’s an opportunity to build global solidarity around the effects of climate change globally by connecting our shared experiences, especially with those in the Global South, worst affected but with the least voice. Connecting with people within their own reality, what they’re already living. We need to be better at doing that.
To what extent do socioeconomic factors intersect with racial identities in shaping the experiences of individuals in the context of climate change?
I think it's a really big part and a very thorny issue to unpack; how do we separate issues around class and lower incomes from race? It's true, those things are independent factors, but they also overlap a lot, and the people who are at that intersection get the absolute worst of it.
So when we think about the geographic level stuff: where do you live? What facilities are available there? What's the quality of the green spaces? How close are you to good quality health care facilities? It all stacks up, and not in the favour of people of colour in this country. With the case of climate change it’s very difficult to pin these aspects down because of the lack of evidence and data, but if you don't ask the question to begin with and you didn't collect the evidence to begin with, that doesn't mean it's not there. It's just like closing your eyes and being like because I don't see you, you're not there.
We need to rethink the entire system and values driving how we live and consume. Whether addressing the climate crisis or global security, a justice lens is crucial for sustainability and equity for everybody.
What policy recommendations or actions can be derived from your findings to address the unique experiences and challenges faced by POC in relation to climate change?
There's a critical need for evidence, because people can’t campaign effectively if you don’t have evidence. We also need to make more effort to get that evidence in the hands of the people who are actually going to do something about it. That joined-up thinking is necessary across sectors, across different actors to be able to really drive change forward. This involves not only addressing issues of diversity and inequality, but also ensuring that efforts are well thought out, applied effectively, and evaluated for their impact, avoiding a cycle of repeating ineffective strategies.
How do you think we can go about communicating with the public and getting more POC involved in environmental projects?
The environment sector is not necessarily the most accessible for people of colour, you've got to have a certain sort of background, particular qualifications and worldview. One of the solutions might be diversifying the ways in which we engage with nature and breaking away from the stereotypical image of an environmentalist; a more inclusive culture, one that embraces different perspectives and visions.
A lot of jobs in the environmental sector are volunteer based and unpaid. Environmental occupations are also not really considered to be all that prestigious or attractive and there isn’t a lot of encouragement to do it within ethnic minority communities. It’s essential to ascribe more meaning and value to these kinds of roles, as well as providing funding so they’re viable ways of making a living.
From your perspective, what can LeftLion readers do tomorrow to make a positive impact on the environment?
One first step is acknowledging we've got a Carbon Neutral Nottingham 2028 plan, which is very ambitious and aspirational. This city is diverse, and if we can make it work, achieve these ecological goals, and also achieve them in a socially just, equitable, inclusive way, I think other cities will look at us and try to emulate that. We have the potential to be in that leadership role. So in whatever way people can contribute and be a part of that.
Another step might be just getting some information, there's loads provided by the council. Just have a look at it and think okay, well how does this connect to my life? What can I do here? And what actions can I do? How can I get involved? It can be demoralising trying to think about ‘I want to solve climate change’ in this big global crisis kind of sense, but if we think about what we can do within our own communities, how we can take steps on a day to day, that is highly valuable.
Read the report at climateexperiences.org
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