People of color contribute the least to climate change and suffer the most. That has to stop.
Every day, a new aspect of climate change reminds us that our environment is deteriorating. This is felt by everyone — but not equally so. Wildfires hurt communities of color the most; white people cause more air pollution than they breathe in, while Black and Hispanic people breathe in more air pollution than they create; and Black people have a higher risk for lung disease related to air pollution and are three times more likely to die from asthma and exposure to air pollution than white people. Each recurring disaster is yet another reminder of the urgent need not only for climate change action, but also for climate justice.
But what is climate justice? Like many other aspects of our society, “Climate change disproportionately impacts BIPOC communities and already overburdened communities, like women and lower-income families, [adding] to the burden of everyday stressors already impacting these communities,” Olivia Aguilar, director of the Miller Worley Center for the Environment and associate professor of environmental studies at Mount Holyoke College, tells Mic. A new report from the EPA found that people of color in the United States are more likely than other groups to live in areas prone to catastrophic damage due to climate change — and as a result, they will experience more health problems and deaths. Meanwhile, Aguilar says, “The biggest contributors to climate change are billion-dollar corporations that receive tax breaks and subsidies, not the individuals impacted the most who often lack resources and political clout.” The executives of these companies are overwhelmingly white.
Simply put: Poor people and people of color contribute the least to the climate crisis that affects them the most. And it’s not just in the U.S. A 2020 Oxfam International study found that the world’s richest 1% create twice as much carbon pollution as the poorest 50%. And according to Deutsche Welle, rich countries in the global north are to blame for 92% of emissions contributing to global warming since the industrial revolution.
These are deep-rooted inequities with serious, compounding consequences, and it’s going to take more than a narrow scientific approach to address them. That’s where climate justice comes in. Ahead, find out what climate justice means, how it fits into the climate crisis fight, and why climate justice and racial justice are inextricably linked.
What is climate justice?
Climate change isn’t a purely scientific phenomenon. It has roots in conflict and in social, economic, and political strife — and all of those issues exacerbate the worst impacts felt by marginalized groups. “The way I would define climate justice: It’s the movement to address the climate crisis in a just and equitable way that does not ignore, but instead challenges the political and economic injustices of our society,” Annie Carforo, a community organizer with the New York-based organization WE ACT for Environmental Justice, tells Mic.
That means that addressing climate change must go beyond curbing emissions and cutting back on single-use plastic. It must redress past wrongs and include infrastructure, food, housing, and economic opportunity for communities already suffering. And the people most affected need to have a seat at the table, which isn’t currently the case. Within the mainstream climate movement, those who suffer the most from climate change are typically left out of the conversations and policies meant to tackle the issue.
The climate justice movement, on the other hand, originated with communities of color. In fact, the earliest publicly recorded environmental justice protests were helmed not by scientists or environmentalists, but by civil rights leaders during the 20th century. In 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King joined over 1,300 Black sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, to protest hazardous working conditions. In 1982, Black community members and organizations, like the NAACP, protested against the state of North Carolina’s decision to place a hazardous waste landfill in the predominantly Black community of Warren County. The protests ultimately didn’t prevent the landfill from being built there, but they did spark the creation of minority-led environmental justice groups and studies on environmental racism, like the United Church of Christ’s landmark 1987 Toxic Waste and Race Study.
Today, though, many communities of color are rarely given the chance to share their climate expertise. Take the increasingly devastating Northern California wildfires, for example: Many such fires used to be managed by intentional burnings conducted by Native tribes. After the practice was largely banned by the state, the wildfires got worse. Now, as NPR reported, California government officials recognize the value of working with tribal leaders to bring back controlled burning. It’s a model that should be the rule rather than the exception: To successfully achieve climate justice, the stewards of the land need to be involved.
“The biggest contributors to climate change are billion-dollar corporations that receive tax breaks and subsidies, not the individuals impacted the most who often lack resources and political clout.”
How are climate change and racism linked?
You can’t have climate justice without racial justice. The two are inextricably linked, and it’s not random. Many of the disparities affecting the ability for communities of color to thrive and survive have roots in environmental racism, which Mustafa Santiago Ali, vice president of environmental justice, climate, and community revitalization at the National Wildlife Federation, says “is weaved into our historical framework.”
“Environmental racism started with the genocide of Indigenous folks, moving them off their traditional lands and taking them away from their traditional foods, and placing them in the least desirable locations,” Ali says, also citing the forced labor of enslaved Africans in brutally hot temperatures for up to 16 hours a day.
Today, environmental racism largely manifests as “the creation of sacrifice zones where they place everything that no one wants,” Ali says, referring to toxic polluters like power plants and incinerators. For years, gentrification, redlining, and other racist policies have effectively restricted and funneled people of color to those “sacrifice zones,” where they also lack access to clean water and food security.
Corporations also use the lure of job creation to funnel hazardous incinerators and waste facilities into poor, vulnerable communities. According to Ali, this rarely results in positive economic gain for residents. “Every analysis has shown that that’s not true. Or the jobs that are often given to folks who live in the communities are the lowest paying jobs,” he says.
It’s a vicious cycle. “Decades of inequitable exposure to pollution [and] environmental hazards along with steady disinvestment, racist housing ... and economic policies have led to really huge disparities in health, wellbeing, and preparedness within communities of color,” Carforo says.
Case in point: A study published this year in the journal Nature Communications found that, adjusting for income level, people of color were more likely to live in heat islands, urban areas surrounded by more concrete and less greenery — and thus prone to higher temperatures — than other parts of the same cities. In those heat islands, the hotter temperatures exacerbate conditions like heat-related death and heat stroke. In New York, Black people accounted for 50% of heat-related deaths in 2013, despite making up only 25% of the population. And in Navajo Nation, the federal government pushed the reservation to the driest one-third of their ancestral homeland. That led to many of its modern residents lacking widespread indoor plumbing — which in turn may have played a role in their increased vulnerability to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Widespread poverty also further intensifies the climate crisis in low-income communities. Many local governments do not mandate landlords have A/C units in affordable housing units, leaving residents struggling to survive increasingly frequent heat waves. That, in turn, can increase pregnancy complications in Black moms. Poverty also pushes folks in areas like the Gulf Coast to particularly cheap housing, where they’re at the highest risk for the damaging effects of hurricanes, as we saw with Katrina and Ida. Compounding these issues, low-income people often lack the resources to evacuate from floods and fires, and to rebuild and recover in the wake of catastrophic disasters.
What’s next in the fight for climate justice?
There’s no single or simple solution to achieve climate justice. Many activists — like Gracie Chaney, a communications leader with Sunrise Movement’s Baltimore chapter — support the Green New Deal and its promise of job creation in the clean energy and environmental sectors. “The Green New Deal [is] going [to] restructure our economy in a way ... that at the very least, makes sure that people are being paid good wages with full benefits for doing work that helps their communities,” Chaney says.
This could offer a way for low-income communities to create economic vitality without having to deal with toxic infrastructure. “The new clean economy can only work if we make sure that those voices who have been unseen and unheard, actually are the front of the line,” Ali says. “And then it can also help us to begin to build wealth inside of our communities.”
While passing the Green New Deal and other crucial environmental legislation — like the infrastructure and reconciliation bills currently being debated in Congress — remains an uphill battle, the climate justice movement has already led to the Biden administration’s creation of the ambitious Office of Climate Change and Health Equity. And activists continue to push for more. “At the federal level we’re working on in D.C., we’re working to ensure that the Justice40 funds announced by the Biden administration are reaching our environmental justice communities,” Carforo says, referring to the Justice40 initiative created to ensure at least 40% of overall benefits from national climate and clean energy investments occur in disadvantaged communities. “We need to make sure that communities of color are not left behind, that renewable energy projects, infrastructure, decarbonization and electrification, energy efficiency, all those things, the sustainability measures that we need, are coming into our neighborhoods as well.”
But much of the climate justice fight happens at the state and local levels. Carforo holds monthly membership meetings to educate others about local environmental issues and potential solutions, and WE ACT is implementing a program to advise on and monitor the distribution of Justice40 funds in New York State. The organization also campaigned for the 2019 passage of New York’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, on which the federal Justice40 initiative was modeled.
Many activists are also challenging their governments to end contracts with toxic powerhouses. For example, Chaney is actively working to shut down the BRESCO trash incinerator that spews toxic chemicals affecting the health of Baltimore’s mainly Black low-income population; and Sunrise Movement is working with Indigenous leaders to stop the Line 3 pipeline that’s slated for construction under the Mississippi River, which Chaney says is likely to leak and poison the Mississippi, negatively affecting Indigenous communities in those areas the most.
And then there’s the fight against relentless voter suppression efforts that threaten the vitality of the climate justice movement. “So many decisions are made that impact communities that don’t have a say in what those decisions are,” Carforo says. Taking away people’s right to vote allows environmental injustices to remain unchecked in their backyards. “We have done a lot of civic engagement in voter turnout ... for local and state elections, especially for residents who are in public housing,” Carforo says. Meanwhile, the Georgia Conservation Voters Organization educates individuals and advocates against voter suppression tactics in Georgia from an environmental lens, and Chaney says Sunrise Baltimore sent members to polling stations to help boost morale and prevent voter harassment during the 2020 presidential election.
Ultimately, all of these efforts center the voices of those who suffer the most from the climate crisis and systemic racism. That’s the only way to achieve true climate justice. “In reality, all activists of any nature of field should be people first. They should be thinking, ‘Oh, how is this problem impacting this group of people? How do we change the system, so that it helps the average person?’” Chaney says, adding that people who have lived in vulnerable communities have the greatest awareness of what those communities need.
The fight for climate justice is inextricably linked with the fight for a healthier environment, both physically and socially. “The ultimate goal of fighting climate change is to ensure [an environment with] viable living conditions,” Aguilar says. “If we are ignoring that living conditions are already unviable for many communities due to the burden of systemic racism, then what is it that we are fighting for?”