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Activist leaves the climate movement because it’s too white

Berlin-based climate activist Karin Louise Hermes has left the climate movement because she couldn’t deal with the white people anymore.
Libby Emmons Brooklyn, NY

Berlin-based climate activist Karin Louise Hermes has left the climate movement because she couldn’t deal with the white people anymore. She felt like her concerns as a person of colour, about the racist impact of climate change, were not adequately represented or respected. What this means is that identity politics is eating itself.

We’ve heard tell about the climate crisis facing our world. The rhetoric goes that we’ve got maybe 12 years to turn this ship around before we all suffer something akin to the fate of the dinosaurs and cause our own extinction. Greta Thunberg practically dropped out of school because of it. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says it’s probably a good reason to not have kids. Extinction Rebellion blocks roads and public transit to draw attention to the dire consequences of climate change. But for Hermes and Vice magazine, those white people just make saving the world impossible.

Hermes was asked to speak at climate change awareness-raising events, and often told the story of her family in the Philippines that had suffered tragic losses during and in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan. The predominantly white Germans and Europeans in the audience were receptive, empathetic, and moved by her words.

Hermes said she “felt required to tell my Filipino family’s experience during speeches and rallies because this form of “storytelling” was the only thing that would move a mostly white European audience to an emotional response of climate urgency—even though it was exhausting telling the story, especially since any mention of hurricanes in the news gives me anxiety.”

Any cause worth undertaking is exhausting. The work of “world-saving” is not easy. Hermes was probably not the only one who was made tired by her efforts. Her climate activist colleagues would probably be horrified to know that their empathy and concern for Hermes’ family was racist. In fact, Hermes wasn’t the only climate activist of colour who has had this experience.

“Many other climate activists of colour have described similar experiences of tokenism,” she writes. “M?ori and disability rights campaigner Kera Sherwood-O’Regan (K?i Tahu iwi from Te Waipounamu) found that as an Indigenous person at the UN climate conferences, organizers would suggest showing support and ‘passing the mic,’ but the same people would be the ones taking up space in negotiations and speaking to the media.”

This forces the question of whether fighting to prevent climate change is more or less important than securing a prominent place for yourself and your personal story in front of the mic. This could be asked to a person with any collection of identity markers. What’s more important, the message or the messenger?

If the answer is the messenger, or something more nuanced, such as the messenger is the message, then how can there be a unified front opposing climate change?

Perhaps there can’t be. Perhaps there are as many messages as there are messengers, and the cacophonous voices against climate change can not be stitched together. Perhaps climate change activism will be eaten by identity politics.

Hermes believes that “Anti-racism and anti-capitalism need to be made part of organizing.” But is the lack of inclusion of those things in the mainstream climate change movement a detriment to that movement? Is there anything to be said for picking a simple cause and going all-in without any modifiers? Apparently not.

“Fortunately,” writes Hermes, “there is now a growing BIPOC Environmental & Climate Justice Collective in Berlin, where we share these experiences of being silenced or tokenized and work together on how to link anti-racism and inequality in climate justice.”

She quotes Sherwood-O’Regan, who said, “As we grow and climate change becomes a harsher reality, privileged activists need to learn to de-centre themselves and meaningfully support Indigenous, disabled, queer, global south, POC, and other marginalized people who are on the frontlines of climate change.”

Because for Hermes and so many others, the messenger is more important than the message. The messenger is the message. Despite the terms used, and the advocacy for the voices of persons of color, this call for people of one skin colour and ethnic background to be decentered in favour of centring people from different skin colours and backgrounds is about tribal dominance. And it’s silly. And it won’t save the world.

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Libby Emmons
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