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Why climate action is the antithesis of white supremacy

Rebecca Solnit


As the news of the Christchurch mosque massacre broke and I scoured the news, I came across a map showing that the Friday morning climate strike in Christchurch was close to the bloodbath. I felt terrible for the young people who showed up with hope and idealism, wondered whether the killer or killers chose this particular day to undermine the impact of this global climate action. It was a shocking pairing and also a perfectly coherent one, a clash of opposing ideologies. Behind the urgency of climate action is the understanding that everything is connected; behind white supremacy is an ideology of separation.

Related: Isolationism is deadly. Only global collective action can save us | Noga Levy-Rapoport

Of separation as the idea that human beings are divided into races, and those in one race have nothing in common with those in others. Of separation as the idea that though white people have overrun the globe, nonwhite people should stay out of Europe, North America, and now even New Zealand and Australia, two places where white settlers came relatively recently to already inhabited places – as a fantasy of resegregating the world. Of a lot of ideas and ideals of masculinity taken to a monstrous extreme – as ideas of disconnection, of taking matters into your own hands, of feeling no empathy and exhibiting no kindness, of asserting yourself as having the right to dominate others even unto death. And of course, of guns as the symbols and instruments of this self-definition.

Climate change is based on science. But if you delve into it deeply enough it is a kind of mysticism without mystification, a recognition of the beautiful interconnection of all life and the systems – weather, water, soil, seasons, ocean pH – on which that life depends. It acknowledges that everything is connected, that to dig up the carbon that plants so helpfully sequestered in the ground over eons and burn it so that returns to the sky as carbon dioxide changes the climate, and that this changed climate isn’t just warmer, it’s more chaotic, in ways that break these elegant patterns and relationships. That chaos is a kind of violence – the violence of hurricanes, wildfires, new temperature extremes, broken weather patterns, droughts, extinctions, famines. Which is why climate action has been and must be nonviolent. It is a movement to protect life.

Fighting against climate change is the equivalent of fighting against hatred

Hoda Baraka

That includes human life whether it’s the people of Central America impacted by failed harvests or of the Gulf Coast by hurricanes or the Arctic and their traditional relationships to seals, caribou and other species in crisis from climate change or the people of California, like the 82 killed in the inferno that in one day destroyed the town of Paradise last year. And it includes all life, because human beings are not separate from the fate of insects, of birds, of the life in the sea, of the forests that sequester carbon, of the diseases that will thrive on a warmer planet. I know a lot of climate activists, and I know what motivates them: it’s love. For the whole planet, for the most vulnerable people on it, for the idea of a livable future.

It’s no accident that climate denial is integral to rightwing thinking, that Republicans in the US have been freaking out about the Green New Deal, that maximizing fossil fuel development and profit seems to be a cornerstone of their libertarian-capitalist ideology. To acknowledge that everything is connected is to acknowledge that our actions have consequences and therefore responsibilities they are unwilling to shoulder. Also that the solutions to climate change require cooperative work at all levels from local energy transition to national policies that stop subsidizing fossil fuels to international agreements to set emissions goals.

In contrast, so much of rightwing ideology now is about a libertarian machismo in the “I can do anything I want” vein. It’s the pro-gun myth that we can each protect ourselves with a weapon when in reality we’re all safer with them out of our societies. It’s the idea that we can deregulate the hell out of everything and everyone can just look out for themselves whether it’s food safety or infrastructure safety or air and water quality. To kill someone you have to feel separate from them, and some violence – lynching, rape – ritualizes this separateness. Violence too comes out of a sort of entitlement: I have the right to hurt you, to determine your fate, to end your life. I am more important than you. It seems like, among other things a miserable mindset, one that aggrandizes your ego but withers your soul.

Climate action has been and must be nonviolent. It is a movement to protect life

To oppose it means in part standing up for those under attack – black churchgoers in Charleston, Jews in Pittsburgh, Muslims in Christchurch, among them. But it also means being the opposite of their ideals and their actions. It means generosity, respect, inclusion, nonviolence.

I asked Hoda Baraka, who is both Muslim and 350.org’s global communications director, how it all looked to her in the wake of the climate strike and the massacre, and she said “In a world being driven by fear, we are constantly being pitted against the very things that make this world livable. Whether it’s people being pitted against each other, even though there is no life without human connection, love and empathy. Or fear pitting us against the very planet that sustains us, even though there is no life on a dead planet. This is why fighting against climate change is the equivalent of fighting against hatred. A world that thrives is one where both people and planet are seen for their inextricable value and connectedness.”

Our work as climate activists arises from the recognition that acts have consequences, and consequences come with responsibilities, and we are responsible for the fate of this earth, for all living things now and in the future we are choosing with our actions– or inactions – in the present. But also from the recognition that ecological connectedness contains a deep beauty tantamount to love. Our goal as climate activists is to protect life. Those children and youth standing up for the future in Christchurch and in more than 1,700 other cities around the world were already the answer we needed.

  • Rebecca Solnit is a board member of Oil Change International as well as a Guardian columnist. Her latest book is Call them by their true names