Climate change affects every living being on our planet, some more than others.
Not every community experiences the effects of climate change in the same way. Some communities have more resources, better infrastructure, or more political capital than other communities. The concept that deals with these inequalities are called Climate Justice. With all that’s happening in our country, I wanted to spend the time I took away from social media to learn more about the intersection of climate change and race. And what I thought was a major problem for all people of our planet can be way more destructive depending on the color of your skin. No, our physical planet is not racist, but the systems that exist within it are.
The idea of climate justice is simple, communities shouldn’t be forced to suffer disproportionate environmental effects or deal with more pollution than others because they belong to a certain race, national origin, or income bracket. It stems from an underlying racist system that was created the moment slavery ended. Ruling whites pushed African Americans into segregated low-lying districts prone to flooding, marginal areas that eventually became home to polluting factories and plants. These concerns are closer than you think, even in our country. We can find lots of environmental disparities even in our very own city.
Here are some examples:
Pregnant women exposed to high temperatures or air pollution are more likely to have children who are premature, underweight or stillborn, and African-American mothers and babies are harmed at a much higher rate than the population at large. This is because minority communities are typically located near factories and industrial areas (which release air pollution) and experience higher temperatures than surrounding areas. Source
The Solomon Islands are an archipelago in the Pacific. Five uninhabited islands have already disappeared beneath the South Pacific. The six other islands are struggling. Entire villages were wiped out and people were forced to move. Nuatambu island has lost half its inhabitable area since 2011. It’s unfair to think a nation who had no part in creating climate change, has to suffer some of its worst impacts. Source
The Iñupiat people have lived in the region around the tiny town of Kivalina, Alaska (population: 400), for generations. They hunt bowhead whales from atop the sea ice for hundreds of years but with the ice melting this is threatening not only their ability to hunt for their food but the safety of their town. The sea ice helps protect the city from waves barreling towards their town but with the ice melting their town could be wiped out. You’re probably thinking, well just move the town do you have 100 million dollars to give? Because that’s how much it would cost them to relocate. Source
This event hit African Americans and poor communities the hardest. Race played a role in the slow emergency response, leaving communities of color stranded for far longer than they should have been. Source
The storm had a disproportionate impact on low income and minority communities For the 33% of residents of the storm surge area who lived in government-assisted housing, recovery was a long, difficult process. Streets were flooded, residents were without power for three weeks, with many low-income neighborhoods still in need of repairs. Source
In places throughout Africa shifting precipitation patterns have left the rural regions with less rainfall, a critical resource for the communities that live there. This paired with hotter temperatures means less food for livestock and less water to drink resulting in greater poverty and widespread hunger.
But it’s more than extreme individual events. In places where it’s already hot (hello Tucson) it’s getting even hotter and there are more of them. This heat can be so dangerous for homes without air conditioning. For example, the heat index inside public housing in Harlem stays dangerously high even at night. As climate change brings the average temperature up systemic inequalities like this will become more obvious.
The fight for environmental injustice started back in 1982 in Warren County, NC when residents protested their city when there were plans to put contaminated soil in a nearby landfill. The EPA then did an investigation and found similar landfills were found all over the south in predominantly black and low-income neighborhoods. Later it was found that hazardous waste facilities were more likely to be located in minority communities all throughout our country.
1992, George HW Bush founded the office of Environmental Justice inside the EPA. Fast forward two years (1994) and Bill Clinton signed an executive order that told federal agencies to consider environmental justice in all policies and effectively included environmental protection under civil rights law.
The fight for environmental justice was in a positive upward trend until George W Bush changed the focus of the Office of Environmental Justice from protecting low-income & minority communities from disproportionate environmental effects of pollution to all people in 2004. I know what you’re thinking well isn’t that good, that way all lives can be protected from environmental effects of pollution? Well, that means those efforts are no longer focused on protecting the people who needed it most and as we established earlier, environmental effects disproportionately affect low-income & minority communities compared to others. So wouldn’t it make more sense to spend effort protecting those areas who face pollution the worst? Additionally, at the same time, many environmental civil rights claims were delayed for years or rejected. An example of this is when the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) allowed a landfill to operate in the heart of our community, threatening their way of life. When Phyllis Gosa, who filed a complaint under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 against them, the EPA never tested the water or air and it had been over 15 years since the complaint was filed. Source
Even during the Obama administration, even though it was committed to environmental justice no bills were passed to help strengthen environmental justice protections. Today, funding for the EPA itself is under threat. Meaning these vulnerable communities remain at risk.
The biggest takeaway is that climate change does NOT affect us all equally, certain communities will be forced to bear an unequal burden in our changing world.
If we want to change this we have to recognize those disparities and make sure those communities are a part of the conversation, that way as we find solutions everyone has a seat at the table.