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Abidine Sakande: Should we examine the diversity of people taking part in climate action?

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At Extinction Rebellion’s May 2023 protest, ’The Big One’, around Westminster, I was asked for my photograph. The photographer, who was Black, thanked me, and explained that he wanted to capture my presence because he was particularly aware of the lack of diversity at climate-related protests. 

During my internship with Carbon Copy, I had the opportunity to think more about this issue and to consider two questions: ‘Is there a problem with a lack of diversity in the climate movement, particularly in community-led climate groups?’; and ‘What might we gain by measuring our current diversity, and seeking to become as inclusive as possible?’ 

For those who think that the premise of the first question is wrong, the evidence that the environmental sector lacks diversity is pretty compelling. A 2018 think tank report revealed that ‘environmental professionals’ was the second least diverse profession in the UK, with only 3.1% of professionals identifying as minorities, as compared to 19.9% of all occupations (farming was the least diverse). Many people in the broader environmental movement are aware of the perception that climate action in the UK seems to be driven by a demographic sometimes described as the ‘eco-bubble’ -white, middle-class, middle-aged folk. The more recently published RACE report, examining the diversity of employees across the environmental charity sector, found that only 7% of employees identify as Black, Asian or other ethnic minority, compared to a national average of 14% of all people in employment. So there is a lack of diversity, but so what – is it a genuine problem? 

In today’s political atmosphere, it’s not enough to point at the statistics. Some may think that this line of argument is a rehash of ‘culture wars’ narratives, and that by raising ‘the diversity issue’ I am seeking to create dividing lines, to guilt trip the dominant white majority, and to seek ‘special treatment’ for ethnic minorities. Analysing the diversity of any organisation, not just in the climate space, is nowadays seen as a political act, and to be upfront, my personal bias is to see more faces like my own represented in the climate action space, not only for general equality’s sake, because ethnic minorities suffer disproportionately from lacking opportunities to connect with green spaces, but because I feel that ethnic minorities can and do bring valuable alternative worldviews about established norms and traditions, that can lead to change for the better. For example, indigenous communities across the world are sharing their deep histories of knowledge and practice, providing thought leadership on how to reconfigure food systems for sustainability and for food sovereignty. Many community groups on Carbon Copy have taken inspiration from these indigenous movements in efforts to reclaim rights to self-governance (e.g. Dream Green Guerrilla Gardening; Brithdir Mawr). Moreover (for those who insist on ‘whataboutery’), I believe in the value of inclusion, because the cognitive toolbox that is unlocked by trying to address one form of unequal representation, such as ethnicity, is equally helpful when it comes to addressing multiple other forms of inequality, such as disability, gender, or class. 

Regarding the diversity of climate action projects, we began the challenging process of trying to scrape some data from the ~1000 stories published on Carbon Copy’s website. During this process, we found that around  12% of the published initiatives – from a range of community groups, public sector organisations and businesses – mentioned that they sought specifically to serve any particular category of social diversity. The majority of these (88%) were projects focused on supporting children and young people, vulnerable adults or people facing financial hardship. We were, of course, unable to identify through this method the true diversity of participants in all the climate action projects published on the site , but what this (unscientific) analysis shows is that very few of these organisations are using language to specifically attract and include different minority groups within their activities.

Whilst an inclusive approach should undoubtedly use unifying language to persuade everyone to get involved in climate action, it is worth considering whether being ‘open to anyone’, actually means that you are open to everyone. If, for example, a theoretically open-to-all community garden is in practice inaccessible to those with limited mobility, or not family-friendly, and if community events are not widely advertised, or only hosted during working hours, many communities won’t feel able to take part. Unless specific consideration is given, some groups simply won’t know about, be able to, or even want to participate. Ironically, disadvantaged groups may be most in need of the benefits that a local community group can provide, such as free access, green space, connections with supportive friendly local people, and opportunities to gain skills and education. So everyone in the climate movement, especially local community groups, will benefit from seeking to understand who is engaging with their work, and avoid unintentionally building structural barriers to access to certain groups. 

There are some great examples of specifically inclusive community action on Carbon Copy’s site; not least that of UpCycleLDN, who are a group working to increase opportunities for young Londoners, particularly those from ethnic minority backgrounds, to get into cycling. I was lucky enough to visit them on behalf of Carbon Copy, and observe a workshop where the kids learnt how to maintain and repair a bike – which after several sessions they will be allowed to take home to keep. The founder, Phil Dobson, told a strikingly uncomplicated story about why he set up UpCycleLDN. As a regular cyclist, he saw there was a lack of diversity in cycling in London, and set out to do what he could to change that. He explained that during and post COVID, he saw that people from ethnic minorities had not only suffered from higher death rates, but also subsequently faced more limits on their mobility, because the increased threat of infection led to more avoidance of public transport. Phil saw getting bikes into children’s hands was a way to increase their transport options and thus opportunities, and also to learn some useful life skills at the same time. It was great to hear that Phil was most encouraged by the support he has received, especially from the cycling community, showing that people really appreciated his efforts and believe his work can make a difference.    

Regarding the second question; in principle, I believe it is important that we bring everyone with us on the journey towards building a more sustainable, ecologically resilient world. In order to do that, it is important to understand that different groups of people interpret and respond differently to current ‘climate emergency’ narratives. As Britain Talks Climate have identified, we need narratives that reach across different social and political as much as demographic groups. But if you don’t know in the first place what background your current volunteers or workers are from, and what motivated them to take action, it will be difficult to appeal to others (who may need a different approach) to persuade them to join in and take action. 

If we start to work out who is represented and where the disparities lie within our own group, we can begin to investigate why some other groups may not be engaged, and seek to understand what kind of messaging might attract them. It is crucial to be aware that some groups may feel disempowered, ignored, and even resistant to certain environmental messaging. The recent backlash against ULEZ expansion in London has highlighted that even in local communities it is vital that those who promote environmental action show they are aware that the costs and benefits of climate action are not always spread equally, and that they can listen and engage with people’s critiques. The anti-ULEZ backlash is a perfect example of how the climate movement can lose public goodwill rapidly when large-scale arguments for environmental action are pitted against powerful, emotive, local issues, such as people’s economic wellbeing. If those in the climate movement do not acknowledge that poorer people feel unfairly targeted, and that some groups face broader social injustices, the solidarity that the climate movement needs will be undermined, and momentum to solve this global challenge will be lost. 

One example of diversifying environmental narratives, to bring different communities on board, is ‘Green Ramadan’, which has been gaining traction in recent years, encouraging 1.8 billion Muslims across the world to consider the environmental teachings within the Qur’an, and to take a range of environmental actions during Ramadan, such as minimising food waste, eating less meat, reducing single-use plastic, and car sharing or walking to the mosque. More creative approaches like this will be needed for the climate movement to truly broaden its appeal across diverse demographics, to turn climate issues from ‘someone else’s problem’, into ‘all of our problem’.

In conclusion, we know that community groups can play a vital role in climate action. They create opportunities to build bridges across difference; they break down the barriers that daily prevent us from recognising each other’s humanity. Strangers become neighbours and even friends through community work, despite differing backgrounds. In our diverse, multi-cultural society, taking local community action reminds us that we are not islands; we all share basic needs, and the plethora of food growing groups, community fridges, clothing repair workshops, and skill, expertise, technology and equipment exchanges I’ve read about on Carbon Copy demonstrate the value of community solidarity, and the strength, not weakness, that can come from depending on the help of others. So to maximise every community’s potential, we need to be aware of the facts of diversity in our local area, and then seek to be inclusive with our messaging.

A diverse and inclusive climate movement is a just and resilient movement that will sustain itself across generations, bringing everyone on the journey. With upcoming elections and the visible weaponising of climate issues by politicians, it has never been more important that communities groups stay together, embrace opportunities to build local connections, and celebrate the potential that diversity can offer.

A young black man with a neat beard and short dreadlocks is smiling at the camera. He is outside and is wearing a green and black sports t-shirt.

Abidine Sakande is from a mixed British and Burkinabè background. He grew up in Sussex, and gained a BA in Human Sciences at Oxford University, followed by playing professional cricket for Sussex and Leicestershire for 6 years. He retired from cricket in 2022, and in 2023 completed an MSc in Environmental Anthropology with the University of Kent. In the summer of 2023, Abi completed an internship at Carbon Copy, where he helped to improve and edit the national climate action story collection.

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