Climate Change and Racial Injustice
The tides are turning, the global population is waking up, and the climate impacts burdening society are staring communities everywhere directly in the face. In the United States alone, the greatest challenge of these issues is disproportionately borne by low-income communities of color. The extreme weather events such as storms, wildfires, floods, and heat waves have caused health problems and property damage across America.
What’s apparent is that low-income communities often lack funding to rebuild quickly from these disasters to ensure the resilience of future climate catastrophes, and those low-income families with small personal savings resources have no chance when a medical or weather disaster claims their lives and properties. In addition to income challenges, systemic racism plays a significant role in the distribution of harms from climate impacts in the United States. But how?
The connection between climate and racism
Whenever a disaster strikes, communities of color are often underserved by disaster response teams. African American communities and American Indian reservations lack access to many resources that could help them create more resilience to the detrimental impacts of climate change, more so than white communities. Those living in poverty are more likely than average to be exposed to dangerous particulate pollution, as a result of the disasters that tend to loom in parts of the United States and the world.
Those systems that inflict violence on non-white Americans or U.S. residents by supporting or ignoring radicalized police brutality, education and employment gaps, wealth gaps, and lower life expectancy also support politics governing climate change causes and responses in the United States, making any action to mitigate climate change unbalanced in its application to individuals of different races. By not having a strong federal climate policy, this environmental mitigation and resilience are often governed at the state and local level, with priority actions in higher-income white communities. The poorer residents of color don’t stand a chance when incentives like electric vehicle tax credits, renewable energy contracts, and energy efficient investments that cut costs and emissions over the long haul are inaccessible to them.
As a result, poor residents are unable to meet these high up-front cost barriers, and policies such as fuel taxes intended to dis-incentivize emissions sources often put a heavier burden on poorer people with less disposable income than their richer peers. Lastly, this connection between racial injustice and climate change falls to the wayside of under-representation in elected offices that detract from the equity of policy proposals and regulations, as the voices of those most affected by climate change tend to be suppressed or unheard.
Where does this lead?
It’s not surprising that over 1.2 million African Americans in the United States are underrepresented by their local city or municipal councils, which suppresses their voices on local issues including climate change and sustainability planning. There are some cities and states around the country, however, who aim to reduce the weight of climate mitigation and resilience on low-income residents by offering targeted assistance programs and incorporating income structures into flexibility planning. It’s the hope that this focus will help balance racial disparities.
After the death of George Floyd at the hands of white police officers, the racial protests swept the nation and globe, giving policymakers an increasingly prominent platform to engage directly with issues of race and environmental justice. It was a rise-up occasion like no other, which may help the turning tide towards deeper redress of systemic climate injustices and its ties with racism. Every politician has a responsibility to listen, to understand, and to educate their constituents regardless of the color of their skin.
There is no doubt that the climate is warming--and Black, Indigenous, Latins, and Asian American communities continue to suffer an oversized share of the weight caused by global warming. The regions with the most cancer-related pollution have some of the highest ratios of people of color. Whether African Americans or Latinos that live in counties in violation of federal air-pollution law, it’s evident that these populations breathe in more polluted air than their white counterparts.
And that’s just the air. Factor in the heat waves, hurricanes, wildfires, and other storms that if left unchecked, these occurrences will only intensify. The reality is that climate change is a racial justice issue, and it is placing Black, Indigenous, Latinos, and Asian American people directly in the path of danger. Since the top environmental organizations are predominantly white--and studies show they are getting whiter--the voices of color are being largely ignored while the affluent white experience is front and center.
Low-income Americans are not as concerned with climate change, yet it is time for a reckoning--to broaden how every population of all walks of life view the environmental movement to ensure that the voices of those most impacted, especially people of color and the disadvantaged, are intimately involved in the global fight to protect the planet.
In a nutshell
The environmental movement needs to be inclusive of everyone who believes that breathing clean air, drinking pure and clean water, and surviving weather patterns is a basic human right, and must include the communities of color who are directly impacted. The solution is to engage the Black and Brown communities by shifting the message. The people of color are already aware of climate change and how it affects them.
What they need are bold, inclusive policies and answers that meet the demands of communities of color who are in the throes of climate change and carrying the weight of it all. There are already examples of people of color leading the charge, including the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program, the Climate Justice Alliance, and the Native Organizers Alliance. Each of these organizations unite communities across race, gender, and economic status by being on the frontlines of environmental justice.
As climate change is an emergency which disproportionately affects minorities and disadvantaged populations, it’s imperative to treat it as a racial justice issue. We must center the dialogue around the voices and experiences of people of color, offering them credit for their work, and being explicit about how the environmental movement disproportionately affects them.. Turning a blind eye to this crisis by not including the communities directly impacted will only lead to further inequities, a more terrifying warming of the climate, and lack of decisive action to help those most affected.. We cannot move the country forward without listening to their voices.
People of color ARE part of the solution.