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The Language of 'Brown Finance' in Climate Finance is Racist

If you cannot hear the problem with the term "brown finance" yourself, please let me explain.

"If the climate finance movement and the institutions and NGOs therein want to find relevance among broader stakeholders and communities," writes Yearwood, "using the word 'brown' with a negative connotation must stop. Frankly, using the word 'brown' in this context must stop simply because it is racist. 'Dirty Finance' or 'Grey Finance' it is." (Photo:  Shubert Ciencia/flickr/cc)

I first wrote this article in March, to be published in April for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. I couldn’t get it published. Outlets kept turning it down, even the most hard core environmental outlets. It was just one of countless indigities and frustrations that come with being a Black leader in the climate movement.

Here I am, a fairly prominent climate activist, trying to alert our movement to the fact that we shouldn’t be using racist language, and the feedback from friendly, or so I thought, media outlets was more or less, “Eh, what’s the big deal? We’re going to pass.”

Like the high profile missteps of brands and influencers in recent years evoking racist imagery or messages (see: Gucci releasing a sweater mimicking blackface or Pepsi and Kendall Jenner releasing a commercial trivializing the Black Lives Matter movement), the climate finance movement is evoking a racist framework in the language of ‘brown.’

Finance leaders and climate campaigners are increasingly referring to carbon-intensive industries that are causing the climate crisis as ‘brown finance’. It’s all over the climate finance world, and now we sometimes hear fossil fuel divestment activists chanting ‘down with the brown!’

I am a vocal, and I mean vocal, advocate for divesting from fossil fuels, and investing in climate solutions. Here I am at Chase Bank getting arrested right before the pandemic, because JP Morgan Chase is the largest investor in fossil fuels in the world.

Any investor, wealth manager, banker, or activist working to move money away from the industries that are killing us and our planet and into climate solutions, I support you. But, if you use the language of ‘brown’ to mean fossil fuels and carbon-intensive industries, you do not support me, or any other person of color.

If you cannot hear the problem with the term ‘brown finance’ yourself, let me explain. And if after my explanation, you still cannot hear the problem, then please just trust me and stop using the term.

"Brown is not just another color like green. It is a color associated with people, and in particular people of color. And it has meaning in the world and in the environmental movement."

While not a cornerstone of U.S.-based climate activism, using the color brown as a proxy for dirty, fossil fuel industries has picked up steam in financial circles in Europe, which has begun to influence other parts of the world. ‘Brown’ is juxtaposed to ‘green’: the first is bad, the latter is good. And herein lies the problem.

To avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis, we have to act now to transition to a low carbon economy—often dubbed a ‘green economy’. This ‘greening’ has been used to describe a suite of desirable attributes to meet the sustainable development goals and basic human needs such as clean air, water, and land.

The finance and investment community in particular uses the term ‘green finance’ to describe finance that is beneficial for the environment, including investing in climate solutions such as renewable energy and electric vehicles. The European Union recently issued green finance taxonomy to determine what economic activities can be considered environmentally friendly by banks and asset managers. The opposite of this green finance has unfortunately been branded as ‘brown finance’—finance that is destructive to the environment.

But brown is not just another color like green. It is a color associated with people, and in particular people of color. And it has meaning in the world and in the environmental movement.

For people of color, it is hurtful and damaging to associate something that is detrimental to society with the word brown. ‘Brown’ has been linked to dirty and ‘white’ to clean, and this has significant racial undertones. Some good reading on this is Carl Zimring’s book Clean and White. Language that frames ‘brown’ as bad is painful, exclusionary, and ultimately structurally damaging to people of color.

Why not just call dirty, dirty and clean, clean? If colors are absolutely necessary to describe an economy, why not just use colors disassociated with human skin, such as gray and green? This seems to be the approach taken by UN Secretary General António Guterres, when he stated, “Place your bets on the green economy, not the grey economy, because the grey economy will have no future” at the launch of the UN Principles for Responsible Banking.

Last month, the Stop the Money Pipeline Coalition resolved to ensure the language of ‘brown finance’ is no where in their campaigning, and is committed to continue calling fossil fuel financing what it is—dirty finance. I commend this commitment, the movement is leading the way, and now we need those in financial institutions to commit as well. (Full disclosure, Hip Hop Caucus, for which I am President & Founder, is a member of Stop the Money Pipeline.)

In a recent article about diversity in environmental STEM, Rhodes Scholar Wanjiku “Wawa” Gatheru is quoted as saying, “Black and Brown people experience environmental hazards and crises first and worst but are not the ones in the environmental fields making the decisions that are going to mitigate these issues.”

One reason the ‘brown = bad’ language choice can even emerge is because there is a lack of people of color in leadership in climate finance institutions and in climate NGOs and organizations. Green 2.0, an initiative that elevates and sustains public attention to the racial demographics of the leadership of the environmental field, recently published its 2019 NGO and Foundation report card that shows this lack of diversity at leadership levels. Green 2.0 concludes:

Young people are already building separate lanes of influence on climate change. Their leadership, messaging and organizing strategies are noticeably more inclusive and racially diverse than the institutions that comprise the wider movement. They are nimble and rapidly responsive, and they are in part because they are the communities they are trying to save. We trust that the longstanding, mainstream environmental movement can push itself to remain relevant by evolving similarly and rapidly.

I fully agree. If the climate finance movement and the institutions and NGOs therein want to find relevance among broader stakeholders and communities, using the word ‘brown’ with a negative connotation must stop. Frankly, using the word ‘brown’ in this context must stop simply because it is racist. ‘Dirty Finance’ or ‘Grey Finance’ it is.

The beautiful global uprisings for Black lives has centered for the world the truth that white supremacy, racism, and the greed of capitalism are at the root of our ills, including the climate crisis. Brown people are powerful, and we will not achieve climate solutions without Brown leadership. Brown = good.

Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr.

Rev. Lennox Yearwood is the president & founder of Hip Hop Caucus, a minister, community activist and one of the most influential people in Hip Hop political life. Be sure to check out Think 100%, Hip Hop Caucus' award-winning climate justice platform, which includes The Coolest Show podcast. Follow @RevYearwood@HipHopCaucus, and @Think100Climate on social media.

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