Climate finance’s language problem

Green Daily

In climate news today...

Kate Mackenzie's Stranded Assets

It took Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr. months to find an outlet that would publish his essay on the words used to talk about clean vs. polluting investments. Under the headline "The Language of Brown Finance in Climate Finance is Racist," the minister and activist in the fossil fuel divest-invest movement patiently explained why using "brown" to refer to dirty and polluting assets is not OK.

"'Brown' has been linked to dirty and 'white' to clean, and this has significant racial undertones," he wrote. "Language that frames 'brown' as bad is painful, exclusionary, and ultimately structurally damaging to people of color." Why not just call it clean or dirty, he suggests? Or, if colors are absolutely necessary, pick one like "grey" that doesn't have any racial connotations.

It's not surprising that when a traditionally white-dominated industry (finance) intersects with a movement that has a history of overlooking or even contributing to racism (environmentalism), racially coded language would proliferate. This problem with the words we use has occurred even though many of the environmental movement's leaders have been Black, Indigenous, and people of color.

The association of "brown" with "bad," as Rev. Yearwood notes, is rampant  in the world of sustainable finance. It's in the title of a World Bank report from 2013: "From Brown Growth to Green: the Economic Benefits of Climate Action." It's become almost unavoidable in recent policy discussions about government stimulus funding. The International Energy Agency, for instance, issued a report in late June that discussed initiatives to "help the emergence of new clean energy value chains or facilitate the transformation of 'brown' ones."

Climate-focused investors should know better than this by now—and, in fact, some insider documents from the field reflect an awareness of the racist language. The EU's Technical Expert Group on Sustainable Finance in March noted that if its proposed climate-friendly investing standards "harmonised internationally," then "the terms used will need to appropriate to different cultural contexts." That means "a different word to 'brown' is needed to describe activities that are significantly harmful to environmental objectives."

Yet this insight didn't stop the report from using the words "brown" and "polluting" nearly interchangeably throughout. The Network for Greening the Financial System, an organization of central banks and supervisors, featured brown-is-bad verbiage in a report published last month, although without the same caveats about the problem. (NGFS didn't respond to a request for comment. "The TEG recognizes it as an issue," says Nathan Fabian, a member of the EU panel, and notes that a future group will likely address the language.)

Fossil-fuel investments have become more obviously risky in recent years, and many betting against them insist, often quite sincerely, that their true concern is returns, not climate change. People in finance working actively to push the world away from fossil fuels often think they can do so through the power of markets alone. They don't want to engage in what they see as messy, subjective conversations about activism and climate justice.

Focusing on returns might be adequate for your energy portfolio, but addressing climate change can't be done without understanding and addressing racism. To cite just one example: About a third of human-created emissions come from agriculture and land use, both of which are inextricably linked to control over land—and inextricably linked to questions of poverty and power.

Climate impacts and adaptation, meanwhile, are even harder to address without raising similar questions. It's well established in the U.S. that the benefits of climate mitigation, such as cleaner air and better transport options, are less available to Black people. A parallel dynamic of "climate gentrification" is increasingly inequality by making safer areas less affordable. On the global level, people in the poorest countries are least responsible for the emissions that caused climate change, but they're often the most exposed to its catastrophic effects.

Leia Achampong, a climate finance expert who works at Eurodad, an umbrella group on debt relief and development, points out how this glaring imbalance is made worse by the words we use. "BIPOC"—an acronym for Black, Indigenous, and people of color—"tend to be most impacted by a lack of effort to address environmental problems and climate change," she told me. "Yet through the use of the term 'brown finance' as the antithesis to 'green finance' are being singled out as 'bad.'" Achampong also sees Europe's Green Deal, an example of ambitious government action on climate change, as an opportunity to change this racist framing.

Vibeka Mair, a senior reporter at Responsible Investor, told me she had mixed feelings about the language during the debate about the EU taxonomy. "I do think that a room full of people from the Global South wouldn't probably have created and pushed the term," she added, "and that is more of the problem for me."

Language alone is clearly not sufficient to tackle the racism it reflects and amplifies. As Mair pointed out, the language of the climate conversation reflects who is—and isn't—in the room. If people involved in climate finance fail to make a simple choice to avoid harmful words, it's hard to see how those same policymakers and investors can hope to bring about climate justice.

Kate Mackenzie writes the Stranded Assets column for Bloomberg Green. She advises organizations working to limit climate change to the Paris Agreement goals. Follow her on Twitter: @kmac.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Here's what else you need to know in Green

Chinese EVs Use Aggressive Pricing to Undercut Tesla
Local carmakers have seen Tesla become the sales leader in their own market.
Puerto Rico Seeks a Deep-Sea Fix for Its Power Woes
An underwater energy complex will pave the way for a new power source in the Caribbean.
China's Millennials Drink More Milk to Boost Immune System
People are being urged to take on more protein.
Markets Reward Companies That Treat Workers Well in a Crisis

Guaranteeing jobs and aiding Covid relief efforts led to disproportionate share price gains.


Popular posts from this blog

How to Dance Across Medium with Fantastic Writers

Chicken vs. cow

Money Stuff: It’s Not All Bad for Banks