World leaders must acknowledge that racism and colonialism underlie delayed, inadequate climate action - and use COVID-19 recovery as an opportunity for justice.

While much of the world was focused on responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, developing countries continued to grapple with climate change impacts. Days after the pandemic began, developed countries responded with measures to save the lives of their populations. Yet, these same countries have yet to meet the commitments they made nearly three decades ago to help developing countries address the impacts of climate change. Clearly, finance can be mobilized rapidly and in large amounts to support those whose lives are valued.

In our view, the lack of action to avoid the most dangerous impacts of climate change is due to the fact that
the lives of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPoC) are given less value than those of white people. Ahead of the upcoming Leaders Summit on Climate, if the U.S. administration is serious about putting climate  justice at the core of its strategy, it must confront the disturbing reality that currently the lives of people in developed countries are assigned a monetary value fifteen times greater than the lives of those in developing nations. This underpins the lack of finance for both adaptation and addressing loss and damage in vulnerable developing countries.

Colonial ideologies are the foundation of the world we currently live in, and the U.N. system is also built on its racist manifestations. This plays out in a power imbalance between the developing and developed countries, including in international climate negotiations, with international climate governance steered by developed countries whose wealth was accumulated through their colonial exploits.

The marginalization and discrimination of BIPoC voices, both in the global North and South, continues to play out in climate policy and action, including in the limited engagement of BIPoC in decision-making at all levels; and the exclusion of BIPoC knowledge in publications on climate change. In our work we see limited space for diversity of perspectives, ideas, and knowledge, particularly local and Indigenous knowledge from those most affected by climate change. Such traditional knowledge, rooted in respect for nature and interconnectedness, must be fully embraced.


Over the past year, we have contemplated the type of world that we hope will emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. It has
exposed and exacerbated existing inequalities and created a new vaccine apartheid between countries, with developed nations turning inward. Yet, they continue to promote a colonial-based economic system that has mostly benefited white communities within developed countries. If ever there was a signal for the need to transform, this is it.

Institutions and organizations working on climate policy, including the UNFCCC, need to recognize and address racism, and achieve equality on all fronts and at all levels. Tina Johnson, the Director of the National Black Environmental Justice Network maintains that: “Acknowledging the systemic racism that is built into the way climate change is addressed is necessary. By doing so we are provided the opportunity, long overdue, to develop policy and strategies that use an equity and justice lens...”

Frameworks such as the
International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples exist to guide this work. Denying the existence of the causal link between climate change and racism is an injustice to those whose lives and livelihood are being impacted on a daily basis.

To achieve the
transformation we need to limit global average warming to 1.5℃ we must address the underlying drivers of exclusion, marginalization, disempowerment and inequality. Efforts to  address loss and damage must be based on the needs of those most vulnerable to climate change on the basis that all lives have equal value.

Without addressing global racism there can be no
Great Reset. We cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the suffering of others while simultaneously calling for transformative change. Acknowledging and addressing that pain and its roots is the change we need to see in the world.

Our message to the world’s political leaders is that each one of you can correct past wrongs and join us in creating a better world if you are just a little bit braver.

Recent research on the way in which racism and colonialism have shaped climate change and climate policy can be found
here.  For more information on our work to empower young climate leaders from the global South please contact Erin Roberts at

Ineza Umuhoza Grace is an eco-feminist working in the climate change and environment protection sector, based in Rwanda. She is the founder and director of The Green Fighter and the co-founder and co-director of the Loss and Damage Youth Coalition. Her mission is to empower other young people, especially from the global South, to lead change at the local level.

Erin Roberts is a climate policy researcher and strategist whose mission is to empower young climate leaders from the global South, including through the Climate Leadership Initiative.

This story was originally published on the 21 April 2021 as an opinion piece on The Thomas Reuters Foundation webpage which you can visit here.