Wales’ declaration of a climate emergency should mean tackling environmental racism

Image by Foto-Rabe from Pixabay

Yasmin Begum

On Wednesday 3rd May, Assembly Members in the Senedd voted on a bill announcing a “climate emergency” in Wales. The vote followed a high-profile demonstration in Cardiff where hundreds of children descended on the Senedd as part of the worldwide Youth Strike 4 Climate for collective action on climate change.

The move follows Scottish First minister Nicola Sturgeon’s declaration of a climate emergency in Scotland, and Labour in Westminster successfully passing a motion to debate declaring the same emergency.

This makes Wales the first parliament anywhere in the world to pass a motion on this topic. But declaring a climate emergency is one thing – it’s difficult to ascertain what impact, if any, this bill may have.

When UK Secretary of State for Environment Michael Gove acknowledged that there was a “climate emergency,” UK group Extinction Rebellion Group responded by warning that “urgent action is needed more than words. An emergency requires an emergency response.”

The signs in Wales that words will be followed up with action aren’t good. When asked if the declaration of a climate emergency would have any bearing on the decision to build an M4 relief road, First Minister Mark Drakeford said that he didn’t believe the declaration “represents a sharp difference in policy. [It] sums up the significance and importance we have attached to the environment.”

It’s difficult to recall a similar instance in recent history where a First Minister has shrugged off a bill (submitted originally by Plaid Cymru) and voted on by Assembly Members almost as if it didn’t happen.

The effects of development on our environment isn’t something we should only worry about in our future. Our own terse relationship with colonialism, industrialisation and colonisation has already physically scarred the landscape of Wales, both shaping and tearing apart communities for hundreds of years.

Whole villages and areas have been flooded for reservoirs, and we can’t talk about the legacy of coal without talking about the gut-wrenching impact of Aberfan of the current location of slag heaps next to schools across former mining areas in Wales.

The perverse relationship with nature in Wales has continues unabated. The declaration of a climate emergency in Wales is not congruent with the £2 billion pound funding for an M4 relief road between Newport and Cardiff or with the dumping of nuclear mud from England off the coast of Cardiff.

The former would irrevocably damage the much-loved Caldicot and Wentloog Levels wetlands in South Wales.

Environmental racism

We can’t talk about environmentalism without talking about identity and race. Even before industrialisation, climate change has gone hand-in-hand with colonialism across the planet.

56 million indigenous people were murdered in the United States of America by European settlers in what is deemed to be the biggest genocide in history. The depopulation of indigenous groups on the continent resulted in a climate changing CO2 drop and the reforestation of an area the size of France.

And it is countries in the developing world that continue to bear the brunt of climate change to this day.

Writer and activist Susuana Amoah runs workshops on race and environmentalism and wrote a Twitter thread on the difference between environmental racism and racist environmentalism and how they are linked.

Environmental racism refers to the implementation of environmental policy as racial discrimination and as policy and practice disproportionately affecting racial minority communities.

This manifests in so many ways, such as black and minority ethnic communities living close to tips, hazardous dumps or nuclear waste.

And in Wales today, it is minority ethnic communities that disproportionally bear the brunt of our destruction of the environment.

The dumping of nuclear mud near Cardiff was close to Wales’ most racially diverse and economically deprived areas. It’s interesting to compare the demographics of CF10 near where the dumping occured and some other coastal areas in Wales: especially towns whose demographics have wildly shifted owing to especially high proportions of holiday homes.

Between 2001-2011, the BME population of Wales more than doubled, and especially in Cardiff, Newport and Swansea. In some cities, like Swansea, some groups grew by over 300%.

On May 6th at 5am, the worst recorded air quality in Wales was in central Swansea close to the multiracial SA1 and SA2 postcodes with a reading of 59. In Llynfaes, Anglesey, the reading was 17.

In England, an inquest has been called into the death of Ella Kissi-Debrah, a nine-year-old girl who died of an asthma attack and whose death “may have been linked to air pollution near her home”. It would mean that air pollution would be put on her death certificate as a cause of death.

She lived close to London’s South Circular road in Lewisham. Air pollution is estimated to kill 143 people a year in Cardiff alone, nevermind other cities or areas across the country. How many Welsh children could have air pollution as a cause of death on their own certificates?

Welsh communities have been living with illegal levels of air pollution for years. We need to start talking about climate injustice in Wales, climate equity and what climate justice would look like in Wales.

We need our movements to reflect our populations. Despite people of colour being located as natural leaders of the climate change movement owing to air pollution in Swansea, flooding in Cardiff or the M4 relief road in Newport, we don’t see people of colour widely reflected in the environmental movement or working in environmental organisations. This needs to urgently change too.

We also need to discuss what climate justice look like in a Nation of Sanctuary given the emergence of climate refugees and the England-based “hostile environment”?

In an open letter to the group Extinction Rebellion a, grassroots collective Wretched of the Earth published a letter addressing ER’s tactics and the overall environmental movement. They wrote: “The fight for climate justice is the fight of our lives, and we need to do it right”.

Our climate emergency needs to be more than words. We need to do better, we need to act, and it starts here with a sharp difference in everything we do.


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