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Choked Up: Race and the climate justice movement

‘As a child it was always the small things I would notice, an ice cream van humming in the playground, parked cars outside the school gates with their engines running, but when my sister started having asthma attacks that’s when I really started to worry, I just felt helpless and like there was nothing I could do’.

When we discuss the climate crisis, we often talk about it in hypothetical terms, using the conditional tense, “if” and “when”. However, this catastrophe has been, and will continue to be, a reality for me; the climate crisis was always on my doorstep. To make things worse, what continues to be a crippling slap in the face for me is air pollution, the silent killer. 

Growing up in multiple council estates in South London meant that I was constantly exposed to lethal levels of air pollution. To exemplify the severity of this issue, my neighbouring town, Brixton (Road), breached its annual air pollution levels in just five days, a link to nearly six thousand deaths a year. However, air pollution and the climate crisis is not solely an environmental injustice. 

To fully tackle the issue, we must recognise that the climate crisis is holistic: it is one that disproportionately affects people of colour, the poor and those of marginalised genders. Intersectionality is important here because all three identities mentioned form who I am, which adds to each layer of the hardship I am condemned to live by with my peers and loved ones around me.

This is why I co-founded Choked Up with my friends: we saw that our individual needs were being constantly brushed away in the climate movement because they were seen as too ‘complex’. In channelling our climate anxiety on a national scale, Choked Up envision the rights of black and brown lives being enshrined in clean air laws in the UK. Clean air is a necessity for human life, and this law in question would act as a much-needed update on the 1956 Clean Air Act. The law in question would cater to modern-day issues, with the first being the need to protect and uplift our most vulnerable communities, namely the ones aforementioned.

To gain respectability and awareness for our cause, we took advantage of the regional news that was cropping up the most in London last year: the Mayoral Elections. In a (successful) bid to speak out about the disproportionate effects of air pollution in our home towns, we designed road signs that read “pollution zone: breathing kills”, and other statistics highlighting how London’s highly-dense POC communities are also the ones breathing the most toxic air every single day. 

We had support from organisations like Purpose and Environmental Defense Fund to put these road signs up in Brixton, Lewisham (South London) and Whitechapel, where we were able to cater for its Bengali population by translating these road signs in Bengali, too. Concerned doctors from the organisation Medact also backed us up from this issue, and expressed their concerns in the form of a letter to all mayoral candidates, discussing the negative health impacts that air pollution has on our communities. 

All of these, together, sparked national attention, with the likes of the BBC, The Guardian and even the now-Mayor of London himself, Sadiq Khan, voicing out his admiration towards our hard work. Raising awareness as a campaign is the first step to our end goal, and the next is to take a route towards political lobbying, applying pressure to our MPs, because they represent us and it is their job to, be able to speak about our issues with the access they have to spaces like the House of Commons. Not only were we successful in raising awareness of the fact that this is happening and the fact that this is an inescapable reality, in our aim to voice our demands for the implementation of schemes that prioritised clean air – no more our needs being just pushed away. 

Recent success has paid off, as our lobbying has proved a success. Last October, we were glad to see the expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone to the North and South Circular areas of London. This initiative recognises that lethal air pollution is not exclusive to central London, in the hope that people living and working in those areas will turn to more sustainable and less polluting modes of transport. Of course, we always have to be sensitive towards those who can’t afford to switch to less polluting vehicles straightaway, whether it be due to finances or convenience, but, hopefully, this expansion will encourage positive changes, enabling those living and working in our most vulnerable communities to live and breathe more safely. However, this is a small step in the long-lasting change we campaigners want to lobby for in our communities.

Additionally, being a minority within a movement that you deserve to be at the forefront of is extremely emotionally taxing. I had to break away from systems that should have supported me as I supported them and create my own with like-minded people in order to be heard. When the climate movement is often unspokenly branded as a white, middle-class movement, it is difficult to have your perspective appreciated because it is not considered as the ‘norm’, but this mindset is a travesty that manifests in injustice and is rooted in prejudice. While people of colour and the working class contribute the least to the climate crisis, we are constantly the ones having to bear the brunt of the earth’s wrath, one perpetuated by the elite, to whom have time and time again displayed levels of apathy so high it kills. 

Choked Up were presented the opportunity to attend COP26 for five days, last November, thanks to the The Advocacy Academy, a Brixton-based charity that uplifts teenagers to establish campaigns on social issues they care about. What felt amazing was just seeing the impact we campaigners have on the world already. It was enriching to connect with so many other climate activists from all over to plant the seeds for newer, working relationships. One of the most relieving feelings as an activist is knowing that you are being listened to. 

A relationship I take very dearly to heart was one by Jack Harries and his wonderful team, who offered to give us A Seat at the Table: a space to share their platform. In his documentary series, we have an intimate conversation with Jack regarding our activism, what it means to us, and why the specific issue of air pollution hit home to us, among other things, like the work we had done. All of this was made in compilation with other activists who spoke about their vocation to climate activism, all forming an excellent addition in preparation for the Climate of Conferences.

However, as mentioned earlier, clean air is an issue that affects communities at different rates. As a fresher moving to Oxford for Michaelmas term, the first thing I noticed was how clean and crisp the air was. I finally felt like I could breathe. With most of the city pedestrianised, it is refreshing to see students and the public alike cycling and walking around so much more! I could count the number of times I’ve used public transport with my fingers on my hands! 

Although a part of me felt a little frustrated by the fact that this lifestyle is not the norm across the whole of the UK, it is a starting point, and I would hope that other towns, particularly London’s impoverished areas, could follow suit. In a mock debate at the Oxford Union, I argued for the notion that ‘this house has no confidence in COP26’ and I still stand by that. Sadly, politicians and world leaders have proven me right as the outcome from this prestigious conference has brought about nothing but disappointment from the public, leaving me with more questions than answers. Will radical change happen in our lifetime, under the (bloodthirsty) hands of our world leaders? Nope. But will the common people, our grassroots organisations seek and attain the justice we deserve? Absolutely.

Campaigning while doing a degree will have its challenges, but this vocation is a true love that I have because it is a part of me that I can extend to those bigger than myself. As Lincoln College’s social backgrounds officer, I can transfer my campaigning skills into such a role, too! To end, I strongly believe in people power, because every single grand movement has started with a conversation, and Choked Up are just getting started with ours.

Image: Li-An Lim via Unsplash.

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