Environmental Racism: the colonial history of climate

Neil Clark
TPXimpact's Planet Officer

Too often we compartmentalise the big issues that we face into more manageable, bitesize problems. We have an equality issue, we have a diversity issue, we have a climate issue… But the reality is that the cause and effects of climate change are directly related to entrenched inequalities within our societies and – without addressing that first – we are unlikely to find solutions which are fair, equitable and sustainable. 

I recently went on a video based course that gave an insight into the foundations of our current climate crisis. The focus was specifically on the source of embedded and systemic environmental racism and green colonialism in climate action, solutions and conversations that persist today.

The Colonial History of Climate course was run by Joycelyn Longdon – a PhD student at Cambridge Uni, who is looking at applying AI to climate solutions. Joycelyn is focusing on engaging with indigenous knowledge and marginalised communities, in order to co-create community centred algorithms and tackle the climate crisis in an equal and inclusive way. 

Where do we start?

The topics of racism and colonialism are seldom covered when it comes to climate solutions and this whitewashes the solutions. The subject is very wide, nuanced and is scaling rapidly, so Joycelyn offers a starting point to challenge some long held beliefs.

This is the huge loss of knowledge from indigenous people that has come from disregarding their deep understanding of their land. Instead of combining knowledge and learning from one another, western scientific ideas and practice have been imposed and as a result we have become disconnected from the land and nature (or lack thereof!) that the majority of people now reside in. 

Joycelyn poignantly says: “I find it sad, and interesting, that the indigenous behaviour of working with the land and taking only what you need, was branded as lazy, not seen as an inspiration.” 

In the workshop I learnt that deforestation across the developing world was not only driven by a need to use the land for economic purposes, but also by the European belief that unpredictable or adverse (i.e. different!) climates in non-European countries were caused by their being heavily forested and biodiverse. It was believed that centuries of deforestation in Europe had helped stabilise its climate and reduce rainfall. Therefore, it was believed that this “solution” should be repeated elsewhere in the world. Europeans believed they had a right to tame both uncivilised people and unpredictable climates. 

A loss of knowledge, a lack of balance

The loss of knowledge that colonialism, slavery and oppression is responsible for has played a huge part in the climate emergency. Also, the lack of respect, and balance in agency, between nations when discussing why and how to work together to solve the climate crisis, is an enormous issue that has undoubtedly made the situation worse. 

Diverse groups of people, from different backgrounds, with different knowledge and understanding and experience of the world coming together to work to solve problems, has proven time and again to improve decision making, productivity and results. Yet ultimately we continue to make the same mistakes with some of our biggest problems, and the solutions to the most important crisis in our history are being decided by non-diverse, unrepresentative groups of people. 

This really was a great course and if you would like to learn more about the Colonial History of Climate and the impact it continues to have on the environmental crisis today the workshop only costs £10 to attend, and you can expense it as part of your company’s training budget.

Thanks to Ashley O’Callaghan, Product Designer at FutureGov, for sharing information about the course earlier this year.


Neil Clark
TPXimpact's Planet Officer