By: Belissa Ardisson
The direct connection and interrelation between climate change and racial justice is more prominent than ever. Climate and racial justice advocates have long been sounding the alarm on how the impacts of climate change affect communities of color more than their white counterparts, however the narrative is being pushed. The transition to a decarbonized economy cannot succeed until there are extreme structural changes in society to redress centuries of systemic racism. There is no denying that the U.S. has made significant technological advances towards clean energy through electric cars, wind and solar energy, and regenerative agriculture; the U.S. is undeniably reducing carbon emissions. However, the U.S. has a reputation of heedless exploitation of natural resources through colonialism and exploitation of indigenous and racial minority communities.
The U.S. has an extremely complex political and corporate dynamic that is designed to minimize labor costs at the expense of the health of its workers, while channeling wealth into the elite few. At the root of this unjust system is the perpetuation of racism. Racism serves as the ultimate facilitator of the exploitation of underpaid labor while imposing a hefty economic burden that does not allow these communities to mobilize for environmental and economic change. Racism perpetuates a society that is focused on economic growth and corporate profit, rather than human dignity and environmental stewardship. Racism allows for an exploitative economic system which is incompatible with the ecological model we need to adopt to transition to a clean energy economy.
For better or for worse, the political world is immensely intertwined with the natural world. Living in a community with high levels of air pollution impairs human bodies—it raises blood pressure, increases cancer. But so does living in a place with a brutal police force. As one study recently put it:
“When faced with a threat, the body produces hormones and other signals that turn on the systems that are necessary for survival in the short term. These changes include accelerated heart rate and increased respiratory rate. But when the threat becomes reoccurring and persistent—as is the case with police brutality—the survival process becomes dangerous and causes rapid wear and tear on body organs and elevated allostatic load. Deterioration of organs and systems caused by increased allostatic load occurs more frequently in Black populations and can lead to conditions such as diabetes, stroke, ulcers, cognitive impairment, autoimmune disorders, accelerated aging, and death.”
African-Americans are three times as likely to die from asthma as the rest of the population. “I Can’t Breathe” is the daily life for African Americans, whether it be from deadly police violence or intoxicating levels of air pollution in their communities. It is the vulnerable communities that suffer the greatest impacts. Minority communities tend to live in neighborhoods that face deep environmental issues due to the systematic racism that exists in our country at the hands of centuries of segregation, Jim Crow Laws. These are the same communities where corporations dump toxic chemicals and fill the air with toxic pollutants.
As summed up by Patrisse Cullors and Nyeusi Nguvu, members of the Black Lives Matter movement, “Racism is endemic to global inequality. This means that those most affected – and killed – by climate change are Black and poor people.” Long-standing racist policies and practices – such as residential segregation, unequal educational opportunities, and limited prospects for economic advancement – have led to increased vulnerability of Black people to climate change impacts and by extension other global crises that may emerge.
This disproportionate effect of climate change is the consequence of a long history of a racist housing policy with weak environmental protections, as well as systemic problems related to public health, education, and wealth. There is a nationwide trend in lack of enforcement and regulation around safety standards for drinking water, and often low-income, Black, Indigenous and other people of color who lack political clout endure the most severe impacts; Flint Michigan, whose communities still do not have access to clean drinking water is just the tip of the iceberg. Additionally, housing and lending policies have historically limited options for Black communities and people of color and concentrated these communities in locations with higher exposure to environmental hazards.
On a global level, developing countries experience the worst impact of climate change, at the hands of the industrialized countries that bear the responsibility for the carbon emissions directly responsible for the climate impacts the world is feeling. On a nationwide level, minority communities bear the greatest health costs of industrial activity and physical climate hazards while contributing least to greenhouse gas emissions causing these climate hazards. Additionally, these communities often lack the resources to prepare and respond to the health impacts of pollution, and the physical impacts of climate change like storms, hurricanes, floods, extreme heat, and seal level rise. For example, four of the seven zip codes enduring the costliest flood damage due to Hurricane Katrina were at least 75% Black and the community most damaged by Hurricane Harvey was 49% nonwhite; this is a common trend nationwide. The fight for climate change is a fight for racial justice. We cannot fight for Mother Earth while ignoring the suffering of her children stemming from environmental hazards that will one day disrupt all of our futures.
 Frederick Hewett, “Racial Justice is Climate Justice”: Why The Climate Movement Needs to be Anti-Racist, https://www.wbur.org/cognoscenti/2020/06/09/the-links-between-racism-and-the-environment-frederick-hewett (June 9, 2020).
 Bill McKibben, Racism, Police Violence, and the Climate Are Not Separate Issues, https://www.newyorker.com/news/annals-of-a-warming-planet/racism-police-violence-and-the-climate-are-not-separate-issues (June 2020).
 Adelle Thomas & Rueanna Haynes, Black Lives Matter: the link between climate change and racial justice, https://climateanalytics.org/blog/2020/black-lives-matter-the-link-between-climate-change-and-racial-justice/ (June 22, 2020).
 Natalie Preudhomme, Racial Justice and Climate Change: Exposure, https://427mt.com/2020/07/08/racial-justice-and-climate-change/ (July 8, 2020).