Intersectional Environmentalism

Leah Thomas
Founder of Intersectional Environmentalist

Intersectional environmentalism is an inclusive approach to environmentalism that advocates for the protection of both people and the planet. The term builds on the concept of intersectionality, which was coined by critical race theory scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. Crenshaw’s framework describes how race, class, gender and other identities intersect and overlap with each other, often leading to compounding forms of discrimination from oppressive, systemic structures.

Historically, the environmental movement and conservation efforts have been dominated by white, middle and upper class perspectives—excluding critical challenges that marginalised communities face such as racism, poverty, and gender inequality. The failure to center these groups in environmental efforts perpetuate existing racial and social disparities. Intersectional environmentalism argues that social and environmental justice are intertwined, and environmental advocacy that disregards this is harmful and incomplete.

The recognition of how environmental issues disproportionately impact marginalised communities, such as low-income BIPOC groups, begins with the understanding that the interconnected legacies of colonialism and capitalism preserve systems of power and exploitation. Prioritising profit over people and the environment resulted in the degradation of natural resources and continues to expose vulnerable communities of colour to environmental hazards. Climate reparations such as supporting traditionally underserved communities with adaptation will lead to a more equitable environment.

Intersectional environmentalism focuses on achieving climate justice and approaching environmental education, policy, and activism with equity, inclusion, and restorative justice in mind. As an Intersectional Environmentalist, I pledge to stand in solidarity with Black, Indigenous and POC communities with the Planet, proactively learn about the environmental and social justices facing these communities, and use my privilege to advocate for black and brown lives in spaces where this message is often silenced.

Pamela EA IE

Dedicated climate justice activists gather to foster unity and collaboration at a climate justice camp. Lebanon, 2023.
Photography By Pamela EA

Text by Sorah Park
Research by Estelle Ngoumtsa

Intersectional Environmentalism is an inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for both the protection of people and the planet. Leah Thomas, founder of the Intersectional Environmentalist platform, emphasizes the interconnectedness of the injustices towards marginalized communities and the environment within this framework. Humans cannot be separate from the planet, so taking an intersectional approach to environmentalism ensures that vulnerable groups are prioritized in environmental justice efforts. The concept adds to scholar Kimberlé W. Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality coined in 1989, which “describes the double bind of simultaneous racial and gender prejudice”. Intersectional Environmentalism acknowledges the disproportionate impact of the climate crisis on historically disadvantaged groups like Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) communities as a result of centuries of systemic oppression. The framework especially highlights the compounded impact that women of color, especially poor black women, experience due to their intersecting social identities like class, race, and gender.

Different generations offer varying viewpoints on the terminology of Intersectional Environmentalism. For example, the modern climate movement has seen backlash from prominent environmental figures. Robert Bullard, also known as the “father” of the environmental justice movement, argues that the definition of Intersectional Environmentalism does not differ from the concept of environmental justice. Older millennials deem the phrase as an “overly wordy and academic addition to perfectly good terminology already in existence; a movement can be intersectional but intersectionality is not a movement in itself”. However, young people are drawn to the new framework because of its emphasis on the idea that everyone’s beliefs are shaped by their identities and privileges, thus separating it from the environmental justice movement. Scholars hope to achieve climate justice using Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality, by analyzing the systemic impact of marginalized groups and how their multiple overlapping identifiers disproportionately affect their relationship to the natural environment. Intersectional Environmentalism is inspired by the 17 principles of environmental justice and focuses on people’s rights in relation to the environment. Leah Thomas hopes that intersectional environmentalism will uplift historically excluded voices in order to protect targeted communities and preserve the planet.

In the 1980’s, environmental racism was coined to describe how low-income, black communities are more susceptible to toxic waste and pollution compared to white, affluent neighborhoods. This is also the reality for Indigenous communities in the U.S. and in other parts of the world like in the Arctic, Panama and Brazil. Intersectional Environmentalism provides a lens into the lived experiences of marginalized groups globally, recognizing the colonial and imperial legacies that have exerted a disastrous toll on both people and the planet. It also underscores how oppressive systems such as racism, extractive capitalism, and the patriarchy do not exist independently. Rather, they work together by reproducing systematic harms such as the unequal burden of climate change on poor BIPOC communities, particularly in the Global South. Currently, climate change threatens to expose up to 118 million Africans in poverty to droughts, floods and extreme heat by 2030. Ugandan climate justice advocate Vanessa Nakate explained that while Africa is historically responsible for less than 4% of global emissions, the continent is at the frontlines of climate change. However, their stories are not being adequately covered by newspapers. Nakate shared, “They're the ones whose voices are not being listened to. And they're the ones who don't get climate finance for mitigation, or adaptation, or finance for loss and damage.” 

By addressing the climate crisis through the framework of Intersectional Environmentalism, underprivileged communities are prioritized within climate efforts. Despite poor BIPOC folks being the most exposed to environmental degradation, these groups tend to be underrepresented at all levels of decision making regarding climate discussions. Recent data revealed that less than 5% of environmental professionals identify as a person of color, compared to a 12.6% average across all professions. Historically, the environmental movement has been overwhelmingly white and reserved for the privileged, with rippling effects that continue to exclude many members of society. At COP 26, venue entrances were not accessible so several disabled activists were not able to enter the climate conference. In the UK, there are 14.1 million disabled people, but the government’s 2021 National Disability Strategy did not include disability-inclusive climate policies—excluding 20% of the population to engage in climate action. With an intersectional approach to climate change, unequal power dynamics are challenged so that harmful social structures such as ableism, sexism, and racism are not perpetuating environmental inequities and allow for a more inclusive climate governance. When it comes to applying intersectionality, Cam Humphrey at Yale University explains that it begins with “critical and intentional listening to communities experiencing injustices firsthand.” When supporting communities most impacted by the climate crisis through accessible education, inclusive climate solutions, and equitable resources, humans and nonhumans alike have a better chance of a habitable and joy-filled future.

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