Where is the climate and racial justice in COP21?

18 December 2015

As we reflect on the outcome of COP21, it appeared that politics cared about climate change again. There were high hopes from all climate camps for Paris. Delegates were told ‘to go hard or go home’ and activists made sure that these delegates knew that we were watching and would hold them accountable if COP21 resulted in another COP15.

Activists drawing the red line at COP21

The creation of a global treaty that all 196 countries could shake hands on, was a historic moment for diplomacy, However, I’m not so sure that it is the answer to solving the problems of our times as there is something missing. Climate and racial justice.  

The power of language

The language used within the COP21 treaty is one we need to unpick and critique in the aftermath (pdf). As with most United Nations Framework Climate Change Convention (UNFCCC) documents all those classified, as ‘marginalised’ were left fighting for inclusion and instead of being given appropriate individual coverage - women children, indigenous, poor, disabled - ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ as Frantz Fanon refers, are all bunched together as one.

The clustering of a very large proportion of any society into one umbrella category is deeply problematic, when policy fails to recognise how these groups themselves intersect and split along ethnic, gender, socio-economic class lines etc, policy will fail to address societies intersectional needs. As Audre Lorde states 'there is no such thing as single-issue struggles because we do not live single-issue lives'.

Language is power and those writing the treaty were very aware of this. When rumours started spreading that Indigenous rights were being bracketed for removal from the treaty, indigenous and racial movement groups took direct action from inside and outside COP21 that seemed to result in the inclusion of indigenous rights in the final text, but minimally and with soft language surrounding accountability when these rights are inevitably violated.

It seems that any sort of climate justice is missing from the treaty. In fact, by encasing ‘climate justice’ in quotation marks the treaty appears to regard climate justice as only a concept, instead of a knowledge base that should be at the foundations of addressing the consequences of climate change. 


At the forefront of all climate change related impacts are Indigenous, Black and Brown communities. This is why climate change is also referred to by frontline activists as Co2lonialism. Samir Dathi notes that 'climate change is the atmospheric expression of class war' and that the 'marginalised' are always the first to fight and the first to die

As it stands however in COP21 treaty, the attention on possible solutions, appear to be only seen as the ending of fossil fuel industries and carbon based market mechanisms, such as REDD+. By focusing only on economic solutions and ignoring the voices and adaptation knowledge within our Indigenous, Black and Brown communities the COP21 treaty ignores the larger social implications and true costs of climate change.

'Our knowledge has much of the solutions to climate change that humanity seeks. It’s only when they listen to our message that ecosystems of the world will be renewed' argues Tom Goldtooth, Executive Director of Indigenous Environmental Network.

Corporations like Exxon are guilty of pumping millions of dollars into lobbying politicians, refuelling the climate sceptic camp, influencing the legal system and committing crimes against Indigenous, Black and Brown communities to protect their interests and profits. 

So we must critique what replaces the fossil fuel industry, as to not is to prop up the same systems that cause global inequality - only with less carbon in our atmosphere. 

And as Alberto Saldamando, Human Rights Expert & Attorney, explained about COP21: 'The Paris accord is a trade agreement, nothing more... Essentially, those responsible for the climate crisis not only get to buy their way out of compliance but they also get to profit from it as well.' 

'Environmental racism is real'

If we are to truly hold politicians and actors accountable for the actions taken following COP21 they must undertake a deep deco2lonisation of their policymaking. This must be done with the cooperation those institutions and NGOs supporting the rolling out of these policies and programmes. 

In an open letter recently published by the Wretched of the Earth collective in response to COP21 and the climate change NGO led movement: 'This is colonialism at its most basic and obvious. Your decision to overshadow the indigenous communities’…indicates at best your historical amnesia, and at worst your own colonial mentality. It also highlights the wilful hypocrisy of the climate movement in the global north'. 

Moving forward for climate and racial justice?

The environmental and climate movements must strategise with and be influenced by Indigenous, Black and Brown led organisations. If not then the same state and institutional oppressive systems that control the way our world works today will continue to control the new low carbon world we are hoping COP21 will lead us too. 

As a racial justice activist and climate change specialist, I am energised to see the emergence of a Black liberation and Global South revolutionary narratives taking space and gaining visibility during COP21. Groups such as Indigenous Environmental Network, Wretched of the Earth, It Takes Roots, Black Lives Matter, Tar Sands UK all held powerful actions that forced those inside COP to see, feel and hear the ‘marginalised’. Our unified call is for 'System Change, Not Climate Change'

As we stand at these crossroads, we need to resolve these hostilities, which will mean some uncomfortable truths and conversations, as well as a redistribution of power and resources towards projects that centre Indigenous, Black and Brown leadership and knowledge. And if those within the climate change landscape are unwilling to do this then Indigenous, Black and Brown organisations within the climate, justice and equality movements will make sure that our rightful space and agency is claimed and our voices are heard. The redline has been drawn


Natalie Jeffers is a MSc Climate Change and Development, Institute of Development Studies Alumni and Founder and Director of Matters of the Earth, an organisation bridging the gap between the academic, activist and creative worlds by unarchiving, reimagining and visualising knowledge for engagement and mobilisation. You can also keep up to date with Natalie on Twitter @mattersearth 

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