Earth Day and the Inconvenient Truth about BIPOC Erasure in the Climate Movement

People of color protesting climate change in honor of Earth Day

This week, the world will celebrate the secular holiday Earth Day on April 22. Started in 1970 by the late Senator Gaylord Nelson (D) of Wisconsin and Congressman Pete McCloskey (R) of California to raise awareness for environmental protection, Earth Day began as a series of teach-ins at college campuses around the United States, organized by climate activist Denis Hayes. Earth Day became a global event within two decades, mobilizing more than 200 million people in 141 nations, according to EarthDay.org.

In 2006, the climate movement received a high-profile boost with the release of former U.S. Vice President Al Gore’s Oscar award–winning blockbuster documentary An Inconvenient Truth. The film is credited for elevating global warming as the crisis of a lifetime requiring immediate intervention. It also became one of the highest-grossing documentaries in the United States, yielding nearly $24 million in box office sales.

Eleven years after the film’s release, however, evidence suggests that it may have contributed to polarizing public opinion on climate policy in the United States. Anecdotally, An Inconvenient Truth also seemed to amplify attention in Hollywood toward climate matters. While data is inconclusive, the rise of celebrity social media use and the increase in messages about climate change in 2008, only two years after the film’s release, seemed to cast predominately white, wealthy people as the supposed face of the climate movement. Mainstream climate advocacy excluded BIPOC activists, even though white supremacy and racial discrimination have been key drivers of climate destruction.

According to a 2020 study by Green 2.0, the leadership within the environmental movement (a combination of the green and climate movements) remains primarily dominated by white men. This lack of diversity appears to have set into motion several discriminatory practices against BIPOCs in the climate movement including white savior heroism to supposedly save BIPOCs in their homelands and communities, the exclusion of BIPOC activists in public relations, and the ignorance regarding the extent to which global climate issues disproportionally impact people of color. While there are some efforts to change the climate movement’s leadership ranks, progress toward this goal is painstakingly slow (paywalled).

Thankfully, there are some organizations that center on climate justice with an emphasis on inclusion. One is the Climate Justice Alliance, a coalition of no less than 84 organizations, communities, and networks dedicated to supporting BIPOC and economically disadvantaged white communities. Another organization, WE ACT for Environmental Justice, focuses on “ensuring that people of color and/or low income residents participate meaningfully in the creation of sound and fair environmental health and protection policies and practices.”

The link between social justice and climate change is undeniable. Higher education scholars and academic librarians share equal responsibility in ensuring more inclusion in the climate movement, including equity-centered open scholarship practices. We must ensure that each space reflects our world’s diversity when we host meetings, conferences, and other convenings.

I hope that Earth Day 2023 encourages all of us in the academy to critically self-interrogate our own biases and the inconvenient truths of our conduct that further exclusion in the global climate movement. We must ensure equal opportunity, voice, and representation for all to sufficiently address the massive undertaking of healing the Earth.

Alexia Hudson-Ward headshot

About the author:

Alexia Hudson-Ward is Associate Director of Research and Learning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Libraries.

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