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Published on 27 November 2023

Understanding our history is vital for climate justice

By Rev Dr Israel Oluwole Olofinjana

Please note a quote in this blog uses racial slurs as it comes from a historical resource relevant to the blogs content.

As world leaders gather in Dubai for the United National climate talks – COP28 – climate breakdown continues to destroy lives around the world. For any action on the climate crisis to deliver justice, we must start by understanding how our world has come to this.    

The true story of the climate crisis remains largely untold. This story isn’t just historic; it shapes today’s climate injustice.

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Graphic depicting scales of justice with pollution driven injustice on the left and climate justice on the right Credit: Christian Aid
Graphic depicting scales of justice with pollution driven injustice on the left and climate justice on the right

We must start from understanding the Trans-Atlantic slave trade was an economic system that prospered because of racial ideology.

Africans were conceived as objects that needed to be dominated. They were seen as inferior and unintelligent. Sometimes the Christian mission, with an understanding that Africans were heathens that needed saving, colluded with colonial authorities in this slave trade.

The Trans-Atlantic slave trade was therefore integral to powering the Industrial Revolution from 1750 onwards. As Eric Williams, scholar and the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago states in his book Capitalism and Slavery:

“The triangular trade thereby gave a triple stimulus to British industry. The Enslaved were purchased with British manufacturers; transported to the plantations, they produced sugar, cotton, indigo, molasses and other tropical products, the processing of which created new industries in England; while the maintenance of the Negroes and their owners on the plantations provided another market for British industry, New England agriculture and the Newfoundland fisheries. By 1750 there was hardly a trading or a manufacturing town in England which was not in some way connected with the triangular or direct colonial trade. The profits obtained provided one of the mainstreams of that accumulation of capital in England which financed the Industrial Revolution.”

With the Trans-Atlantic slave trade creating finance to drive the Industrial Revolution, Williams identified the link between racism and capitalism that started during the industrial age. I would identify an additional link - one between racial injustice and climate injustice that is historically rooted in slavery, colonialism, and the Industrial Revolution.

During the industrial age the levels of pollution - which have driven the climate crisis - accelerated. As the Industrial Revolution was powered by the colonial Trans-Atlantic slave trade, racial injustice therefore sits at the heart of the climate crisis.

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Ruvimbo and Radhika hold a banner reading Climate Justice = Racial Justice and vice versa Credit: Amy Menzies/ Christian Aid
2 women holding a banner reading Climate Justice = Racial Justice and vice versa

As an African Christian, I can’t see how we can have climate conversations, without looking at slavery, colonialism, and the Industrial Revolution. This triangular history still shapes our current world and narratives on climate breakdown.

As someone who comes from Nigeria and now living in the West, I’ve seen how my country and several other colonised African and Caribbean countries are still wrestling with the effects and legacies of colonialism. They are also disproportionally suffering from the climate crisis. Symptoms of this include the high prevalence of lung diseases in poorer, more polluted areas; conservation reserves being created on indigenous land, ignoring indigenous peoples’ ancestral rights and historical protection of nature; and in the area of Nigeria where I grew up, constant floods damaging people’s homes and businesses.

In addressing our present climate crisis we need to understand the root causes for its existence, so that we come up with the right diagnosis and solution to our polluted world. If we are going to address climate injustice collectively, we need to look at the shared pain in the triangular history of slavery, colonialism, and the Industrial Revolution wrapped in racism, and then see how it needs redeeming in light of the climate crisis.

As Christians, what is our theological framework for tackling the linked climate and racial injustice? 

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Christian Aid supporters marching for climate justice in London as part of the COP26 Day of Action. Credit: Christian Aid/ Amy Sheppey
A group of people walking in a march holding placards reading Act Justly, Love Mercy, Walk Humbly Micah 6:8.

Biblical passages such as Micah 6:8 and the Jubilee festival in the Old Testament give us a basis of thinking around systemic and structural injustice. Micah 6:8 calls us to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God. While the Jubilee festival provides a biblical example of acting justly by returning property to its original owners.

For me the call to act justly also means we need to decolonise climate conversations. Western agendas and values cannot be the sole drivers of conversations.

We are now, just beginning to look at the impact of the climate crisis on people of colour - instead of focusing solely on nature-based issues (they are important but not in isolation).

We need to look at people of colour who have been disadvantaged and see how we can advocate with them. We need a prophetic voice and wisdom in climate conversations so that people of colour can be at the heart of the debate of what delivering climate justice means. 

Because ultimately if we were to exclude people of colour and the triangular history of slavery, colonialism, and the Industrial Revolution, we’d be missing important factors needed to achieve climate justice. 

Rev Dr Israel Oluwole Olofinjana is Director of the One People Commission of the Evangelical Alliance.

He is also Honourary Research Fellow at Queens Foundation Birmingham, Founding Director of the Centre for Missionaries from the Majority World, part of the teaching faculty of Christ Theological College and member of Christian Aid's black majority church leaders working group. 

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Photo of Rev Dr Israel Oluwole Olofinjana
Photo of Rev Dr Israel Oluwole Olofinjana