Sustainable Living

If You Care About the Climate Crisis, You Must Care About Environmental Justice—Here’s Why

Erin Bunch

Photo: Getty Images/myriam meloni; Graphic: W+G Creative

The climate crisis may have only recently found its way onto the radar of many, but the dangers that poor environmental health can have on a person’s well-being are not new to broad swaths of the population. Many Americans, who are disproportionately Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), lack access to essentials, like clean air and water, and are regularly exposed to toxic chemicals due to proximity to power plants and freeways.

This system that targets low-income and racial minorities for more exposure to pollutants and degraded environments compared to the general—mostly white—population is known as environmental racism. Environmental justice, also called climate justice, is a solution to that problem; it supports all individuals having the right to a clean and healthy environment as well as the right to be involved in creating policies that impact that environment. “These disparate impacts are coupled with the systematic exclusion of racial minorities in environmental policymaking, enforcement, and remediation,” says Michael Méndez, PhD, assistant professor of environmental planning and policy at the University of California, Irvine, and author of Climate Change From the Streets: How Conflict and Collaboration Strengthen the Environmental Justice Movement

So, the climate crisis isn’t just about saving polar bears; it’s also about rescuing the most vulnerable populations from dismal health outcomes. These are people who have lived in what have been called “sacrifice zones”—poorer neighborhoods that house power plants that provide energy to wealthier demographics—for too long. And if those zones no longer exist, we’ll be forced to figure out less harmful and more sustainable solutions to the climate crisis. In other words, if we can no longer dump toxins in poor neighborhoods, we’re going to have to figure out how to make things less toxic—and that is why the path to effective climate change solutions is tied to advocating for environmental justice first.

Environmental racism by the numbers

Environmental equity is far from realized, and evidence abounds to support that: Black Americans are 75 percent more likely to live near facilities that produce hazardous waste; the majority of people living within 1.8 miles of a polluting facility are POC; Black families making $50,000 to $60,000 a year are more likely to live in polluted areas than white people who make less than $10,000 a year; overall exposure to fine particulate matter (PM), the inhalable particles found in air pollution, is higher for POC than for white people; 11.2 percent of Black children are poisoned by lead versus 2.3 percent of white children; and on and on the list goes.

Most recently, this inequitable access to a healthy environment has made BIPOC folks more vulnerable to COVID-19. An April Harvard University study that was updated in late September found that just a small uptick in exposure to particulate matter 2.5 (PM that is smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter and most dangerous to health) is associated with an 8 percent increase in COVID-19 death rate. Now, consider that Black Americans are already three times more likely than the overall population to die from air pollution alone because, regardless of socioeconomic status, they are more likely to live in polluted areas. What this makes clear is a correlation between COVID-19 infection rate being higher among BIPOC people at least partially in light of the negative environmental factors already compromising health.

BIPOC communities aren’t just unevenly predisposed to real-time effects of environmental pollution. Dr. Méndez says future climate change effects also impact them more than other populations. Flooding, for example, disproportionately affects Black neighborhoods, and research shows that southern coastal areas with significant Black populations are most at risk for being displaced by rising sea levels. A 2019 study projected that many of the American counties on track to be hardest hit by climate-change damage by the end of this century are home to the poorest Black, Latinx, Asian, and Native American communities—and these groups are already feeling more negative climate-related effects than others elsewhere in the country.

How systemic racism created and perpetuates environmental inequity and inequality

Environmental inequities are no accident, says Dr. Méndez. “These are intentional choices that are happening often because of racist policies that put these environmental burdens in these communities.” Eco hazards like industrial sites, ports and highways, and hazardous-waste dumps have to go somewhere, and it’s historically been easiest for corporations and government organizations to place them inside of BIPOC communities. This is because marginalized groups typically have fewer financial resources or political connections to fight against such developments than wealthier, predominately white groups may, says Taylor Morton, environmental health and education manager for activism-minded organization WE ACT for Environmental Justice. Racist policies that support segregation, such as redlining, perpetuate environmental risk even further.

For an example of how this plays out, Dr. Méndez points to a famous report concerning the placement of a waste dump in 1982: In the report, consultants recommended the company position the dump in the Latinx section of Kettleman City, California, because residents there weren’t politically organized, they were poor, and they were less likely to protest and resist. Today, a cluster of birth defects in the area is under investigation in connection to the dump. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to determine which of the environmental inequities experienced by the community is responsible—Kettleman City is also punctuated with freeways, located near pesticide-heavy farms (where many of its residents work), serves its citizens contaminated tap water, and is in a food desert.

This isn’t just a past-tense issue, either. In March of 2018, the EPA ignored objections to placing a landfill in Uniontown, Alabama, which has a population that is 90 percent Black. Meanwhile, consider how California’s affluent Beverly Hills school district recently spent $15 million (of a $334 million grant earmarked for improving facilities) trying to block a subway line from being built under one of its schools, claiming it would damage the health of the students. Without this $15 million budget, there would have been little chance for such a strong fight.

Black Americans are exposed to 56 percent more pollution than they generate, Latinx populations are exposed to 63 percent more, and white Americans are exposed to 17 percent less.

To add insult to injury, the communities of color most impacted by environmental degradation are the ones doing the least damage to the environment. A 2019 analysis compared the fine particulate matter exposure of populations to the amount of pollution they generate and found that, on average, Black Americans are exposed to 56 percent more pollution than they generate, Latinx populations are exposed to 63 percent more, and white Americans are exposed to 17 percent less. And a 2020 study showed wealthier populations have a carbon footprint around 25 percent higher than those of lower-income peers; in some cases, the research showed that affluent neighborhoods were producing 15 times more emissions than their nearby lower-income neighbors. “Climate is really a justice issue, because the countries and the individuals and the corporations that do the most harm are not the ones who are most impacted,” says Julie Sze, PhD, founding director of the Environmental Justice Project at the University of California, Davis, and author of Environmental Justice In a Moment of Danger.

Connecting climate change and environmental justice

As environmental justice advocates have been calling out now for decades, many mainstream sustainability efforts are rooted in privileged (often, white) communities, with the idea being that benefits engendered by the initiatives will eventually make their way to people who cannot afford to participate in them. There’s nothing wrong with composting, avoiding single-use plastic, and driving electric cars if you’re privileged enough for those options to be available to you, but for both climate change and climate justice, relying on consumer behavior alone will only perpetuate inequities.

As Michaela Coel points out in an episode of the HBO show I May Destroy You, such mainstream sustainability solutions as buying an electric car allow the ruling class to pretend to be saviors, and to virtue signal in ways less-privileged populations cannot—despite having created the bulk of the environmental damage in the first place. In the episode, a Black character bemoans being made to feel guilty for driving a non-electric car by the same rich white people (on an ancestral level, at least) who have been destroying the Earth. Meanwhile, those same people driving their electric cars are not typically the ones actively fighting against the placement of toxic waste dumps in marginalized, lower-income communities.

There’s nothing wrong with composting, avoiding single-use plastic, and driving electric cars, but for climate change and climate justice, relying on consumer behavior alone will only perpetuate inequities.

Mainstream sustainability solutions can actively harm these disenfranchised populations, too. For example, Morton notes that while the plastic bag ban in New York state (other states have implemented them, too) is a great effort in sustainability, not everyone can afford a reusable bag. So such bans have now placed undue burden on populations that have done the least in terms of polluting. Furthermore, adds Dr. Sze, individualizing solutions—whether with plastic bags, straws, or electric vehicles—draw attention away from the social and government structures that need to change. “You can’t shop your way out of the problem,” she says. For the environmental problem to be solved, change has to be systemic and backed by policy.

Dr. Méndez says the first major defensive action in the modern climate justice movement occurred in the 1980s when activists rallied around a predominately Black community in Warren County, North Carolina, to protect it from a planned hazardous waste dump. This resistance didn’t block the landfill, but it did earn national attention and set a precedent for other environmental justice cases. In the 1990s, grassroots environmental-justice groups united to call out mainstream environmental groups for ignoring the present-day environmental plight of communities of color. This action eventually led to the 1994 executive order by President Bill Clinton requiring government agencies, like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to incorporate environmental justice into their mission and research. Climate justice-oriented policies began to emerge at the state level, too.

Since then, federal protections gained or lost traction depending on the administration in power. Most recently, however, the Trump administration has caused major backslides. Funding for the EPA has been slashed, and the organization’s Office of Environmental Justice has been completely eliminated. Protective policies have also been delayed and reversed: Obama-era caps on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and vehicles have been weakened, protections for wetlands have been slashed, methane regulation has been reduced, and much more.

What now? To really make an environmental justice impact, says Dr. Méndez, policies need to specifically target the improvement of environments in affected communities. This can happen on a wider scale by taking a local approach to cleaning up a neighborhood that can then be replicated more widely. “When we think about improving the environment, we can’t just think of coastal elite, or protecting the wilderness—we also have to think about our own backyard, and making sure communities aren’t sacrificed for the rest of society to function,” he says. “If you really want to have a sustainable world, you have to target the most burdened communities first.”

How to get involved in the environmental justice movement

Dr. Méndez says most environmental-justice organizations are underfunded and understaffed and could use your money and time as a volunteer; however, according to Morton, it’s not always as easy to identify environmental justice organizations as it is to, you know, find one that’ll let you save some whales. Oftentimes, environmental-justice initiatives are small and localized, and might not explicitly identify as an “environmental justice” initiative. Because of this, she suggests taking the first step of educating yourself around the various issues that connect to environmental justice—like water quality, sanitation, and indoor health—and then joining activist groups focused on those individual issues within your community.

In the same vein, it makes sense to pay attention to legislation, on city, state, and federal levels. “Stay tuned in to what your elected officials are advocating for, especially elected officials who are fighting for communities that are BIPOC or lower income or face environmental injustices,” Morton says. Only three areas in the entire U.S. have broad environmental-justice programs—New York City, San Francisco, and Fulton County, Georgia—so if you don’t see yours on that list, it might be time to get involved in local politics to see how and where you can pressure politicians to enact similar programs. Oh, and vote—in every election you are eligible to do so.

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