Climate Justice Is Racial Justice

environmental racism

The fight for making the planet a better place must begin with the fight to make it livable for all the people who inhabit it. The planet is one thing that all humans share — regardless of their race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, or age — and the battle to protect our planet, and stop the climate crisis, is, on the surface, something that unites us all. 

But the reality is that the effects of the climate crisis don’t impact everyone equally, which is why we need to be intersectional in the way we approach climate change — knowing well that the issue of climate change is a racial issue, too. 

This is the mission of intersectional environmentalism, which has gained traction as people in the United States and all over the world have come together as part of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Elijah McClain, and many, many more. 

What is intersectional environmentalism?

Leah Thomas — known on the Internet as @GreenGirlLeah — recently launched a platform called Intersectional Environmentalist, which calls for any work done on the environmental front to be anti-racist and inclusive. In her own words, Thomas — who is credited with popularizing the term — defined intersectional environmentalism as “the type of environmentalism where both people and the planet are considered, so both social and environmental justice are considered, and [they’re] talked about in the same conversation. Because, in my opinion, those things are so interconnected.” 

Intersectional environmentalism addresses environmental racism. 

Since the early days of the movement in the 1970s and 1980s, Robert Bullard has been one of the most vocal supporters of, and pioneers in, the environmental racism space, and in 1999, he defined the environmental justice movement as such: “The environmental justice movement has basically redefined what environmentalism is all about. It basically says that the environment is everything: where we live, work, play, go to school, as well as the physical and natural world. And so we can’t separate the physical environment from the cultural environment. We have to talk about making sure that justice is integrated throughout all of the stuff that we do. What the environmental justice movement is about is trying to address all the inequities that result from human settlement, industrial facility siting, and industrial development. What we’ve tried to do over the last 20 years is educate and assist groups in organizing and mobilizing, empowering themselves to take charge of their lives, their community, and their surroundings. It’s more of a concept of trying to address power imbalances, lack of political enfranchisement, and to redirect resources so that we can create some healthy, livable, and sustainable types of models.”

Race is the top indicator for where toxic facilities are located. 

The reason it’s important to empower these minority communities is because it’s known, and proven, that the climate crisis has had a larger impact on communities of color, and other marginalized groups. As the NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program explains, “Toxic facilities, like coal-fired power plants and incinerators, emit mercury, arsenic, lead, and other contaminants into the water, food, and lungs of communities. Many of these same facilities also emit carbon dioxide and methane — the No. 1 and No. 2 drivers of climate change. At the same time, not all are equally impacted. For example, race — even more than class — is the No. 1 indicator for the placement of toxic facilities in this country. And communities of color and low income communities are often hit the hardest by climate change.”

Dr. Beverly Wright, CEO of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University, has found that Black people are, quite literally, on the frontlines of the climate crisis in the United States — thanks to racist institutions like residential segregation, which affects educational opportunities and, ultimately, perpetuates the wealth gap in this country. 

“[Communities of color] are in double jeopardy,” she said. “First, if you’re a person of color, particularly Black or Latino, you’re more likely to live near toxic facilities, like petrochemical companies here in Louisiana, producing toxins that shorten and impact quality of life. And then, [our communities] are on the front lines of impacts from climate change, living in places where there could be more floods and a higher incidence of different [climate-related] diseases. For poor communities, there’s also not having access to health insurance or medical services. Communities of color are disproportionately affected by all of these things.”

Natural problems also plague Black communities disproportionately. 

While non-naturally occurring polluters — like toxic waste plants — are put in Black and Brown communities by someone or some organization, there are also natural climate-related risks that disproportionately impact those communities as well. 

As Dr. Wright pointed out, when Hurricane Katrina pummeled down on New Orleans, it was the Black communities that felt the impact of the storm; not only was the government spending that went into the flood and levee preparation unequal, but the recovery effort — when compared by race — was also skewed to help white residents (a problem that has been repeated in subsequent post-Katrina FEMA efforts and hurricane aid). 

Flint, Mich. — which, in the 2010 census, had a population that was 56.6 percent African American (and around 35.6 percent non-Hispanic white people) — hasn’t had clean drinking water since 2014. The issue of Flint’s drinking water was, initially, a financial decision; the city was on the brink of financial collapse when leaders changed the drinking water source to the Flint River — which was known for its murky waters, and, originally, tested and proven to be safe to drink. However, the problem of the lead-contaminated water quickly became a racial, political issue, as it reflected the larger problem of how these “solutions” can hurt populations that don’t have the resources to fight back. 

As Paul Mohai, a professor at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment Sustainability, who has dedicated decades of his career to studying environmental justice, explained to an article published in the Michigan Sociological Review (per Science X), “[These places where communities of color are located] are also places where residents are not given meaningful say in the decisions that affect their communities and quality of life, where their concerns about pollution and the health impacts are minimized, discounted, dismissed, and where residents are treated disrespectfully and show they have little influence or clout… [Flint] has made environmental justice a part of the American consciousness.”

Climate issues for Black Americans may begin in utero. 

For many Black Americans, the impact of the racial inequalities perpetuated by the changing world begin before they’re even born. In a scientific review published earlier this year, 68 studies conducted between January 2007 and April 2019 were analyzed and found that there was a significant correlation between two major elements of the climate crisis — air pollutants and heat exposure — and the case of premature labor, underweight babies and even, tragically, stillborns. These instants were even higher for women with asthma and Black women (as well as other minorities, but to a lesser extent). 

As California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment’s Rupa Basu, one of the review’s co-authors, added, “We already know that these pregnancy outcomes are worse for Black women. It’s even more exacerbated by these exposures.”

Environmental racism is supposed to be policed by the EPA. 

In accordance of Title VI of The Civil Rights Act — which states that it is illegal to discriminate on the activities receiving federal financial support — the United States Environmental Protection Agency (the EPA) defines environmental justice as “a civil right, fair treatment, and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income in respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” 

Despite this, the EPA has repeatedly faced complaints that its policies aren’t compliant with Title XI, and has found and reported that “racial minorities and low-income communities are disproportionately affected by the siting of waste disposals,” which — by the 2016 EPA’s own admission — is likely perpetuated due to those groups’ lack of “political and financial clout to properly bargain with polluters.”

Under the Obama administration, the EPA underwent a vigorous examination to see if Title XI was being enforced within the EPA, and found that it was not compliant to the best of its ability, and Title XI could be used to regulate and create accountability within the EPA. 

Though the EPA under the Trump administration has an “Environmental Justice 2020 Action Agenda,” the racial disparities in environmental protection have only worsened with Trump’s anti-environment policy rollbacks. The president’s decisions to roll back regulations on coal ash, remove protections for drinking water, and abandon the clean power plan — to name a few — will impact Americans of color more than their white peers. 

Trump also rolled back NEPA — the National Environmental Policy Act — which was one of the rare ways that the community was able to advocate for themselves when it came to environmental policy, regardless of economic, racial, or social group. 

Additionally, Trump has reallocated funds that could’ve helped those most vulnerable to environmental disasters; late last year, Trump diverted funds that would’ve been allocated to FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) — which can provide disaster relief in the wake of environmental catastrophes like tropical storms and floods, known to disproportionately impact Black communities — to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) which often violates constitutional rights when raiding people’s homes, and detaining and deporting them, many times separating children from their parents in the process. 

Though Trump’s bad record with civil rights violations, the history of Title VI complaints about the EPA predates Trump taking office in 2016. In 1999, several young defendants — between the ages of six and 14 — filed a complaint against the EPA, stating that children in California (particularly children of color, namely Latinx children) were exposed to methyl bromide at their schools. Their filing explained, “School children of color in California suffer a much greater risk of exposure to deadly agricultural chemical methyl bromide — a pesticide known to cause respiratory, kidney, and neurological damages with extended exposure — than their white counterparts. Schools which have over 35,000 pounds of methyl bromide applied annually within a 1.5 mile radius have a student population that averages 82 percent students of color… In California, the amount of methyl bromide applied within a 1.5 mile radius of a school is positively correlated with the school’s non-white population: The more methyl bromide applied in proximity to a school, the more likely that the school will have a greater non-white student population.”

Unfortunately, as more Title VI complaints against the EPA are filed, we’re repeatedly reminded, in the words of Environmental Justice Activists repeatedly remind us that “justice delayed is justice denied.” 

As with so many industries, representation continues to be a problem with the organizations doing environmental work. 

One of the reasons that environmental racism continues to persist at a structural level is because of a lack of representation of Black people in environmental organizations. Research has found that white people are overwhelmingly leading various environmental causes — whether they are non-profits, educational institutes, or even publications like Green Matters — even though, in the United States, not only are Black, Indigenous people of color largely affected by environmental problems in our country, but many minorities also experience climate-related issues unique to their situation. 

Last year, Green 2.0 — previously known as the Green Diversity Initiative — released its findings, unveiling that the environmental movement “is getting more white.” For their study, they examined the top 40 NGOs and top 40 foundations working in the realm of environmentalism, and found that they were not only mostly white, but they had actually had more white representation — despite the organization’s dedication to diversifying the field. 

Part of this comes down to what we picture when we picture “an environmentalist.” In late 2018, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America published a study that revealed that many Americans pictured and stereotyped an “environmentalist” as an educated, wealthy white person — even though many groups of color and marginalized groups consistently show higher levels of concern for our planet than white counterparts. 

This causes a plethora of issues, including the fact that marginalized groups continue to stay on the sidelines — even when it comes to situations that directly and uniquely impact that group. In an interview with The Guardian, Bernadette Demientieff — a representative for the Indigenous Gwich’in nation, explained how she struggles to get an audience (of people who have the power to make a difference) to listen to the problems that plague her community because they aren’t part of an organization that has the reach other white-led groups and movements do. 

“I’m not an activist. I’m not an environmentalist. I don’t like to be branded because I care about our land and our animals,” she explained. “I feel that all of our voices are important, but it’s just, it’s personal for us. There’s just a lot at stake and it’s hard to explain to somebody that lives in New York or somebody that lives in DC.”

There are some solutions to environmental racism. 

Unfortunately, as a complex issue, the problem of environmental racism requires extremely complex solutions to fix the systemic problems that are so commonplace. One of the most important ways to address environmental issues is to address the people who are in office. At every level, it is important to elect officials who are not only aware of the inequities that exist related to our country’s environment, but are also taking significant steps to improve the infrastructure and the lives of our citizens. 

On a smaller scale, another way to address the inequality that exists in terms of racial representation. One such group, the Solutions Project, announced that they will use their philanthropic fund to give grants to groups run by women and minorities. 

We Act — a nonprofit organization that looks to empower low-income, minority communities in hopes of building an equitable society for all — offers a guideline for eight ways environmental-focused organizations can support a movement for environmental justice. Their guidelines suggest the following:

  • "Provide technical assistance when needed; 
  • Create spaces for resource sharing and networking; 
  • Critically evaluate who benefits from your organization’s actions; 
  • Solicit guidance, input, and feedback from frontline communities and [environmental justice] advocates; 
  • Make meaningful diversification and anti-oppression part of the work; 
  • Work to create a more just distribution; 
  • Use your established platforms to support frontline communities; 
  • Incorporate [environmental justice] into your organization."

As an individual, there isn’t as much that can be done when it comes to systemic environmental racism — as the problem exists because it is on such a large scale. However, one of the most important things you can do is take the Intersectional Environmentalist’s pledge, and make sure that your work for equality includes the fight for the planet. 

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