Feb 20, 2023 - Energy & Environment

Black Girl Environmentalist rejects climate "doomism"

Wawa Gatheru and Arielle King

Gatheru and King. Photos: Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Environmental Media Association/Courtesy of Arielle King and Roydenn Silcott

Climate "doomism" — fatalistic messaging that nothing can be done to reverse climate change on a global scale — is easy to find on outlets like TikTok, where the baseless argument has gone viral in recent years.

Why it matters: Organizations like Black Girl Environmentalist are challenging the misinformation that feeds the argument, which they say can lead to a loss of power for the communities bearing the brunt of climate impacts.

Driving the news: Members of the nonprofit's leadership team were just recognized on Pique Action and Harvard Chan C-HANGE's "Climate Creators to Watch" annual list for their advocacy work engaging people on issues of climate and environmental justice.

The backstory: In 2021, Wanjiku "Wawa" Gatheru founded Black Girl Environmentalist (BGE), which seeks to empower Black girls, women and non-binary peoples in climate action by facilitating increased representation within environmental disciplines.

  • It began as an online space providing digital educational resources, mentorship and programming, but has since evolved into an in-person, community-based network, launching next month in eight cities across the U.S. and the U.K.
  • Creating optimism and a sense of agency around climate solutions while diversifying how people think a climate scientist or activist should look like are some of BGE's tenets.

What they're saying: "We want people to know that being in climate doesn't have to be all doom," says Gatheru.

  • "It’s not too late and the concept of 'giving up' is a privileged one. Especially for so many already experiencing the brunt of the issue."
  • A Kenyan-American climate storyteller, Rhodes scholar and former revolutionary power fellow at the Department of Energy, Gatheru led the creation of the state of Connecticut's first-ever food security assessment of a public higher-ed institution, which has since been cited in federal legislation.

The 24-year-old founder says she's been in the climate movement space since she was 15, which was when she decided she'd dedicate her life to environmental justice.

  • "I've unfortunately come across in many of these spaces, a lack of prioritizing Black voices, and particularly Black girls, Black women and Black non-binary environmentalists," Gatheru tells Axios.
  • "I was constantly asking the question: 'Where are we in these conversations?' I know on the ground we are here, we are creating solutions, as a means of survival, we've been doing environmental justice before environmental justice was a term, but we're not really here."

Meanwhile: Arielle V. King, the group's programming director, says there's a demonstrated need for accessible resources that teach how the pursuit of racial and climate justice are "deeply connected."

  • The disproportionate burden of climate change on communities of color and the lack of protection and over-policing of those same neighborhoods are connected through a legacy of systemic racism and environmental injustice, King tells Axios.
  • "If I'm talking about prison abolition, if I'm talking about Black Lives Matter, or another Black person being slain by police, that is an environmental issue," says King.
  • "The same communities that are over-policed in this country are the ones that have the least amount of trees or access to fresh, affordable food."

Zoom out: A 24-year-old environmental justice advocate and educator, King has been a host of the "The Joy Report" podcast, which spotlights climate solutions, and worked as an environmental justice staff attorney at the Environmental Law Institute.

  • She grew up in Albany, New York's South End, in what she considers a "very environmentally overburdened community ... with the highest asthma rates, the lowest income rates, the highest levels of pollution, and the most limited access to green space."
  • Up until recently, the area was a food desert.

The bottom line: "So much of environmental stewardship, environmental leadership is grounded in the knowledge and lived experience of Black women and Black non-binary folks," King tells Axios.

  • "One of the most important parts of the environmental justice movement is the ability to create self-determination for those who have been most impacted by environmental harm, and allow people to have a say."
Go deeper