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11/5/2020 / Issue #030 / Text: Fabian Sattel

The Royal Dutch Shell and Environmental Racism

Does climate change affect all of us? Yes indeed. But never all of us in the same way. And while most European climate activists are concerned with ‘the future of all of us’, they forget that for some people climate change is -and has been- an issue for quite some time. And guess what, the people hit hardest are probably not the ones reading this article right now.

The concept of environmental racism was coined in the United States of the early 1980’s. First used by activists, the term was quickly adopted by scholars and researchers from various disciplines including geography, sociology and law which produced a pile of studies confirming the unequal distribution of environmental pollution burdens between different groups of people with “race” being the strongest determent. Environmental racism, hence, is any practice leading to different environmental impact of groups or individuals based on “race“. Environmental justice is the name of a movement that evolved in response to those findings, stressing that communities of colour and poor communities are under far greater risk of being negatively impacted by environmental risks. Activists of the environmental justice movement deny class or race neutrality by stating that specific social groups are hit harder by the environmental and climate policies other groups gain benefits from. 
But environmental racism not only refers to the unequal dispersion of environmental disadvantages but also to the underlying systemic structures causing those inequalities. 

Examination of global and transnational patterns of environmental injustice show clearly that export of polluting industries and waste goes by far more often into countries that were former colonies. Furthermore, the change of the global climate brings a whole other dimension into environmental justice given the disparity between the global north and the global south in having impact on climate change and being affected by its consequences.  

Climate Justice is a term inspired by the environmental justice movement. Just as environmental hazards fall unequally on different people along the lines of race, class, and gender, so do the impacts of climate-related weather events. 

The Royal Dutch Shell is the world’s number 9 of companies emitting the most greenhouse gases, making it a significant actor when it comes to exerting slow violence. People all over the world that are facing consequences of climate change such as droughts, rising sea levels or extreme weather situations are impacted by the economic actions of Shell. It is important to emphasise, especially given the infamous colonial history of the Netherlands, that those people predominantly live in countries that struggled against European colonialism. 

A current case of environmental injustice in which Shell is directly involved in is the struggle of the Wet’suwet’en against a gas pipeline that is planned to be built on their land. Shell is involved with 40% of the project’s capital. The project ignores the UN declaration on the rights of indigenous people and is backed by Canadian state power, resulting in protestors facing arrest. Shell is not only involved in the pipeline and thus prioritising economic profit over UN declarations and environmental issues, they also state the project would receive “support from local communities, First Nations and the Canadian government” despite the disagreement with the project of the Wet’suwet’en. By fighting Shell, we stand in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en and other indigenous groups struggling against environmental racism around the globe.

Two years ago, Code Rood supported the local communities in Groningen, the Netherland’s poorest region, which were hit by several earthquakes caused by the extraction of gas by Shell. Despite not being racialised the communities there still suffered from environmental injustice as their voices were not heard in the public due to their socioeconomic status. 

This is not an accusation of Shell employees - many of the people who work for Shell are well-meaning workers who just want to do a good job. However, the colonial roots of the company show that their climate denial policies are not their only faux-pas. 

After this long expose of the environmental justice movement, the reality of climate racism, and the unique position of the Netherlands with its infamous colonial history, now is of course the question: what should be done?

Many people are concerned about climate breakdown. However, they do not see how they can have influence on something so big, abstract, and threatening. Although some change their diets or feel guilty when going abroad, many feel that, faced with the biggest existential crisis humanity has faced this far, their reactions fall short. And of course we do - not because we don’t change enough in our individual lives, but because we don’t take collective action. It’s up to us to demand and create broad change. Not by changing our individual meal plan, but by coming together and refusing to accept climate criminals polluting our planet.

On the 21st of March, there will be an anti-racism demonstration, in Amsterdam. This is the perfect day for climate activists to show they are not only concerned about their future, but also about the lives of the many people already suffering from the disastrous choices of fossil fuel companies. Afterwards, there is a talk at the Bollox about Climate Racism and the Shell Must Fall Campaign.

Check the complete new issue of Amsterdam Alternative also on Issuu.