Black, Brown and Indigenous people have been systematically excluded from earth sciences, magnifying their exposure to the most severe impacts of climate change, said Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, lead author of a recent commentary in the journal Nature Geosciences.
That adds to the burden of global warming that people of color already bear more heavily than other populations because the world for centuries has been “geographically delineated based on racism, and resultant slavery and colonialism,” Berhe said.
The article was the latest in a series of academic papers and articles that describe the consequences of discrimination in the sciences, but many scientists hope that it won’t be the last.
Berhe, a University of California, Merced soil scientist and environmental justice advocate, said that, because of structural racism, “there aren’t nearly enough conversations about how the worst impacts of climate change are affecting Black and Brown people disproportionately.”
Most of the nearly 1 billion people worldwide facing an increased threat of food insecurity and displacement from global warming are Black and Brown, and their stories aren’t being told in part because voices from communities of color and Indigenous populations have been systematically excluded from scientific fields critical to fully understanding and explaining climate impacts, she said.
The loss of women and people of color from various stages of educational and career paths in science has long been referred to as the “leaky pipeline.” But in the article published last month, Berhe and her co-authors said that analogy ignores the systemic racism that in large part built the pipeline. Closer to the truth, they assert, is that the legacy of racism in science created a “vicious and hostile obstacle course” that blocks the advancement of women, as well as Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC). To correct the well-documented lack of inclusion, “this exclusionary obstacle course should be placed in the context of scientific racism, colonial legacies and systemic biases that permeate our disciplines,” they wrote.
New Conversations About Historically Marginalized Communities
Conversations in some science organizations about race and racism accelerated as a wave of civil rights protests spread globally in 2020 after a policeman choked George Floyd to death in Minneapolis. Those dialogues have led some science organizations and research institutions to make diversity pledges, which will help combat global warming and other planetary emergencies like biodiversity loss, said Berhe, who has been studying the topic for 20 years.
Empowering and amplifying “the voices and concerns of historically marginalized communities,” she said, would build a diverse and inclusive science community that can better resolve “historic inequities in access to resources and opportunities.” Most important may be addressing the “socio-economic and political factors that are the root causes and contemporary effects of the climate crisis,” she added.
In the climate science community, the lack of diversity shows with the “disproportional attention paid to the physical impacts of increasing atmospheric temperature on melting polar sea ice or permafrost, rising sea levels, and even impact on polar bears,” Berhe said. “These are all important issues in their own right. But, while these issues have been receiving considerable attention, what doesn’t get as much press is that, in the context of human security, climate change is a threat multiplier,” intensifying droughts and famines in developing African countries.
One recent study showed a dangerous lack of data about the threat of extreme heat waves in large parts of Africa—data needed to create early warning systems and protect people. Other studies have identified structural racism in science showing up as research biases because most studies are conducted by white researchers in developed countries.
At national and local levels, many scientific fields and institutions are still not very inclusive and don’t address “the issues of harassment, discrimination and bullying in the workplace with the kind of seriousness and urgency that the issue demands,” Berhe said. “As a result, these exclusionary behaviors have contributed to underrepresentation and exclusion of women and BIPOC. The cost of that to science and society has been huge.”
Social and Political Dimensions
If science were more inclusive, it would have a richer and deeper understanding of pressing issues facing society, including the climate crisis, said article co-author Meredith Hastings, an environmental researcher and deputy director of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society.
“The more minds you put toward a problem the more likely you are to find a solution,” she said. “We would have a more critical understanding of the changes that are already taking place.”
Hastings said that ongoing exclusion of people of color, Indigenous people and women in science should also be considered in a larger societal context, including the failure of political leadership to strengthen voting rights, a measure that would empower disenfranchised people at a fundamental level.
“In our country, everything is so driven by politics,” she said. “I get so overwhelmed by the structural, systemic racism. At the very least, can’t we create a system where we remove the obstacles? And how do we actually consider a different system? You have to have politicians who are willing to fight for change.”
The reality is that science, rather than being purely objective, is political and social, said Kuheli Dutt, assistant dean for diversity, equity and inclusion at MIT.
“It involves questions of what should be studied, how should it be studied, how the parameters should be defined, what should be included and what should be excluded,” said Dutt, who was not an author of the commentary. “And there is usually an element of power relations in who gets to decide these things.”
The rapid development of modern western science has been driven partly by its co-dependence with societal hunger for natural resources, she said, but people often describe geosciences as being “objective study of the natural world, the oceans, soil and rocks, rather than the social world.”
“Concepts like resources and extraction often ignore the forced labor extracted from marginalized groups,” she said. “Similarly, the study of land is often limited to its physical properties; rocks, soils, rather than the history of forced displacement associated with those lands. With this focus on physical properties there is a significant historic and social context that gets ignored.”
Sharing Stories of Success
Some scientists point to organizations that have more successfully incorporated inclusivity and equity into their staffs and work as models for what science with a focus on diversity could accomplish.
Dawn Wright, an ocean researcher and chief scientist with ESRI, a digital mapping company, said she would like to see more science stories told about the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, a group including many developing countries. The coalition is pushing for a global agreement for nature and people “to halt the accelerating loss of species, and protect vital ecosystems that are the source of our economic security,” said Wright, who was not an author of the recent article.
“The stories behind the critical involvement of nations such as Botswana, Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, the Marshall Islands, Seychelles, Mozambique and more are not being told,” she said, “including what the world stands to learn from their Indigenous, traditional ecological knowledge around sustainable resource management, biodiversity accounting and protection.”
And while the era of direct colonization of new land areas is over, the exploitation of ocean resources, including on the seabed, is just getting started. Wright said that presents an opportunity to test diversity and justice pledges from policymakers and the scientists that inform them.
A 2021 research paper spelled out an important warning “about the potential social injustices that may result from the growth of the new blue economy,” including dispossession of property, displacement of communities, “ocean grabbing” and environmental justice concerns about pollution and waste, as well as the exclusion of Indigenous communities and people of color from governance of the ocean-based economy.
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Wright said some of the challenges described in the paper are now being addressed, and sharing those success stories more often could leverage those considerations into more hidebound institutions.
“In my view we are not hearing enough about these efforts, they are not being trumpeted and feted, even to the point of forcing long-standing bastions of the ‘old ivory tower ways’ to take note, to step up and to compete,” she said, because graduate students are starting to gravitate toward schools that offer courses closely looking the power structures that are part of science.
“The stories of scientists of color are still not being told widely enough,” she said. “Too many of us are still hidden figures, but ethnic history months and the remarkable outpouring of featurettes on Twitter in particular are starting to improve this.”
Berhe said she hopes the science community can make swift progress, because “voices of people of color are still vastly underrepresented in some of the most important conversations around identification, prioritization, implementation and even communication of climate change science, adaptation, and mitigation.”
Dutt added that “ignoring the social aspects of science in the name of objectivity often means that these stories don’t get told or studied in a meaningful way in the geosciences. And with this focus on physical properties, there is a significant historic and social context that gets ignored.”