Indigenous People's Sunrise Ceremony On Alcatraz Island In San Francisco

An Unequal Unfolding


The history of colonialism, segregation, and development show why certain communities suffer disproportionately from the climate crisis today.

Photo by Liu Guanguan / Getty

Nearly a month ago, I wrote about the ways Spanish-speaking communities in California often lack access to information during wildfire emergencies. Language is but a small part of this story—the story of how the climate crisis harms some of us more than others.


When wildfires rage, some households don’t receive evacuation alerts. When hurricane-force winds blow through, the Black, brown, and poor often wait longer for power to return. Some never had power to start with. Climate disaster isn’t restricted to the U.S. It’s global.


That’s the thing about the climate crisis. It’s coming for us all, but not to the same degree. This isn’t by accident; it’s a result of decisions spanning over centuries.


Welcome to The Frontline, your daily reminder that the warming of the world is unjust. Climate change and extreme weather aren’t racist, but the way leaders have constructed our society is. I’m Yessenia Funes, the climate editor at Atmos. For this edition, we’re hearing from Kyle Whyte, a professor at the University of Michigan and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation in Oklahoma. Whyte breaks down how colonialism, imperialism, and racism-at-large have contributed to the ways climate-fueled extreme weather events occur today.


This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.


When we talk about colonialism and the history of how entire nations and continents have been shaped globally, what role did colonialism and imperialism have on the ways climate change now impacts some of us more than others?


Those types of colonialisms where a group of people sought to permanently settle the lands that other people—Indigenous people—had been depending on for generations was a project to really terraform and craft the land to suit those settler populations’ desires and cultures and economies.


They literally took the land that Indigenous people had been in interdependent relationships with for generations, and over time, they industrialized that land, and they made that land suitable for the fossil fuel industry. They committed double harm in relation to climate change. They first violently moved Indigenous people out of their land and onto lands that were either smaller or that those Indigenous people were less accustomed to. Then, at the same time, that land became the basis for the fossil fuel industries and the industrial economy we now know is responsible for the rise in global average temperature.


Colonialism and imperialism are not the only or the most fundamental forms of oppression that played a huge role in today’s climate change problems. For example, anti-Black racism has a long history and, over centuries, was also used in ways that created violence and harm that can be associated with laying the groundwork for today’s climate crisis. When thinking across different groups, whether Indigenous people, Black people, but also diverse Latinx groups and others as well, we can focus on the different forms of colonial disempowerment, of racism, of other forms of discrimination that played a huge role in bringing about what we understand today as climate change.

What colonialism does is it directly destroys that connectivity and creates isolation.

Kyle Whyte
Member Of The Citizen Potawatomi Nation in Oklahoma


So how did those racist actions that date back to imperialism or colonialism eventually evolve into more modern development practices we see today, such as segregation and redlining, that created a further imbalance in how climate change would impact us?


For generations, Indigenous people had high levels of regionalization and even globalization in a lot of cases. The success of those societies historically was not based on their being self-sufficient or some kind of independent small group, but rather it was about their connectivity at different scales.


What colonialism does is it directly destroys that connectivity and creates isolation. Indigenous people then became removed onto reservations. In terms of climate change, one of the big factors that creates a susceptibility to being harmed, a vulnerability, is if you’re just confined to a small territory with no way to make adjustments. If you have a cultural practice that depends on a particular plant and climate change affects that plant’s habitat, how do you continue the cultural relationship with the plant?


If you look at other forms of racism and discrimination, such as segregation and redlining, we can have that dialogue too. Communities find themselves confined to particular neighborhoods with little capacity to travel or to move around unless they do so with great risk. That means that they’re not going to be able to prepare as much for how to deal with climate change. A lot of times, communities were forced to live in areas that didn’t have the best infrastructure or didn’t have the best location in terms of potential environmental risks.


The desire of people in the U.S. to commit violence, to move people out of the way, either to control them, to exploit them, or just to take their land, over time has created a situation where groups experience isolation and a lack of mobility and a lack of capacity to take leadership in relation to how plans are being made about how to deal with climate change.


What are some of the fixes here? What needs to happen to protect these communities as much as possible from the ways that climate change is going to manifest itself?


Law, policy, and funding from dominant groups need to really center on the idea that whether it’s communities or neighborhoods or tribes, we need to be empowered to have our own capacity to take leadership in the work around climate change. That leadership means a lot of things. We should be able to produce our own science. We should be able to use our own knowledge traditions as part of how we understand what’s happening to us.


What we lost through colonialism was our collectivity as self-governing groups, as self-determining groups that have their own institutions and that are doing things in ways that are specific to the types of peoples that we are and that are best for us.


We need to move beyond the idea that our primary collaborators are people of privilege or white people. On the one hand, people with privilege do have a debt to us. They do have a responsibility to us given how much they’ve benefited from our dispossession and our alienation. On the other hand, our most powerful allies are communities that face barriers too. Indigenous people, Black people, Latinx people. Our communities may be different in different ways, but we do have shared histories. We also have, perhaps, an ability to understand each other and to work in coalition and to find leverage points within the dominant society.


If we all get behind the work together, then we can have a more empowered change, and we can begin to restore that sense of connectivity that was attacked by colonialism and other forms of discrimination.

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