Environmental Justice and Climate Change
February 1, 2023
Lately, I feel bombarded with report after report of environmental- and climate-related disasters. News about rising sea levels or deteriorating air quality is disparaging enough on its own, yet something even more sinister is lurking behind the destruction. Racial minority groups are disproportionately affected by environmental degradation, and this disparity is no coincidence; it is another example of how racial biases cause real-world inequity and injustice.
This specific kind of injustice is so common it has its own term: environmental racism. Known as the “Father of Environmental Justice,” Robert D. Bullard defines environmental racism as, “Any policy, practice or directive that differentially affects or disadvantages (where intended or unintended) individuals, groups or communities based on race.” While not officially defined until the 1990s, this kind of discrimination has been happening for decades. In fact, the first documented environmental protest by a minority community happened in 1968, after a sewage treatment plant was forcibly placed in West Harlem.
Much like climate change, environmental racism acts as a silent killer. From the damage caused to Indigenous communities by fossil fuel mining, to Black and Brown people dying from heat stress at alarmingly higher rates than white people, the inequities are clear and hiding in plain sight.
Adding insult to injury, many of the corporations responsible for this damage find ways to avoid making full reparations. Evidence shows fines for breaking environmental laws in minority communities are lower than the fines for those same offenses committed in predominantly white neighborhoods. One study shows this disparity still holds true regardless of annual income. In fact, minority communities also experience higher levels of air pollution, regardless of their tax bracket.
Despite the overwhelming evidence of systemic, environmental racism, it continues to persist. In fact, just a couple of months ago, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began an investigation into Colorado and its major polluters. The investigation stemmed from accusations of discriminatory air pollution regulations negatively affecting Hispanic communities.
It is difficult to hear about large-scale systemic injustices without feeling discouraged. Racism is so deeply embedded in our society it can often feel like there is no solution. Luckily, there is more hope than ever as groups ranging from grassroots organizations to the federal government are developing plans to push for environmental equity across minority groups. One notable example from the Biden Administration is the Justice40 Initiative, which aims to support historically disadvantaged communities and works towards remedying environmental injustice.
As we strive to create a more equitable world, it is essential to recognize a clean, safe environment as a fundamental human right, not a privilege afforded based on a certain race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. Electing leaders who believe and fight for this is one way to stand in solidarity with those disproportionately affected by climate change or other environmental problems. Join EARTHDAY.ORG in investing in our planet by pledging to Vote Earth during the next election.