Climate justice cannot be achieved without First Nations justice

We hear these words in speeches, at rallies, and on banners — but what does it really mean? What do First Nations-led climate solutions look like?

The fight for climate action is one of the largest movements in Australian history, a movement that saw 80,000 people strike in Sydney in 2019, and millions more across the globe. The aim of the movement, at its core, is to secure a safe and liveable climate, and to demand accountability and action from governments and institutions on climate change. As a part of demanding accountability and action, you will often hear that“climate justice cannot be achieved without First Nations justice.” Activists and campaigners are gradually understanding there can be no safe, liveable future, whilst First Nations people experience the same colonial violence, discrimination, and exploitation that allows for coal, oil, and gas to control the nation. 

It goes without saying that First Nations led-solutions should be at the forefront of the climate movement. However, this requires that the fundamental issues facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities — widespread sickness, death, incarceration, and discrimination — are actually addressed and met with real change. “Climate justice cannot be achieved without First Nations justice” can be best described as an intersectional view of environmentalism, first coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, as she describes the oppression faced by African American women as an intersectional experience where the impacts are “greater than the sum of racism and sexism alone.” 

With this understanding, and in the context of the Australian climate movement, it is essential that First Nations issues are addressed concurrently with climate issues. After all, the destruction of climate – and subsequent fight to protect it – is taking place on stolen, unceded First Nations land. An environmental movement cannot organise whilst the very custodians of the environment being fought for are suffering. There needs to be liberation for mob to see liberation for the climate. Regardless of this concept, how will stopping black deaths in custody, ending the high incarceration rates of Indigenous youth, and overall First Nations justice, actually secure a safe and liveable climate?

It begins with radical decolonisation. By viewing the climate and environmental movement as one that is solely based on a Western understanding like needing to recycle and using less plastic – casts the scope of responsibility on to the individual and doesn’t address two basic things. First, that marginalised communities like Indigenous people, globally, are disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis; and second, that the very institutions and systems creating the climate crisis are ones that require marginalised bodies to be continually policed, discriminated against, and oppressed. If one sees the fight for climate justice in a lens that addresses these two things, and challenges systems of oppression that are perpetuating the climate crisis, there is going to be a more holistic and efficacious answer to the climate crisis.

I always return to the Audre Lorde concept of the master’s house. The master’s house is built by the master’s tools — colonialism, patriarchy, and capitalism – and one cannot dismantle the master house with any of the master’s tools in hand. So, to address climate change, something created by a capital desire to exploit the land (as a commodity for wealth), it is important that colonial contrivances like the killing or incarceration of Indigenous people is corrected — so that the very oppressive system of capitalism, that is responsible for climate inaction, is corrected accordingly. 

We cannot have ambitious and meaningful climate action if First Nations people are not met with the same ambitious and meaningful action. When this nation is seeing close to 600 Aboriginal deaths in custody since 1991, how can there be climate justice in any form if the people who have cared for this land for millenia are being discriminated against?

If this nation wants to see climate action, they have to tear down these systems. They have to rapidly and radically decolonise. Because if scientists warn of incoming, irreversible climate disaster, western environmentalism that is safe and palatable will not work. Only by dismantling the master’s house, by intersectionally taking down colonialism, capitalism and patriarchy, will true climate justice be realised. 

We cannot rely on a system that profits off climate change — it’s paradoxical. Hence, the act of decolonisation and revolution is the only way to see a safe, liveable future. “Climate justice cannot be achieved without First Nations justice” means that, as a people, we resist the colony, we give back the power to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and we demolish the oppressive system which propagates injustice against both the climate and First Nations communities. As long as we have institutions and governments in power that make billions of dollars out of the prison, policing and fossil fuel industries, there will be no climate justice or First Nations justice.

The University’s Real Deal project seeks a safe climate, secure jobs and stronger, safer communities for First Nations people: