We can’t address our climate crisis without addressing systemic racism too

GRAPHIC BY LEO TAFOYA/GRAPHICS CENTER

Julia Hall is a junior environmental studies major. 

The eerie, dystopian orange smoke that enveloped the San Francisco Bay last September as wildfires ravaged surrounding areas, painted a mere fraction of the climate change picture. It’s been well-established that human beings are the authors of this ecological horror story — but the haunting aspect of climate change that isn’t often talked about is the heavier burden its effects bear on Black, Indigenous, and other minority populations in the United States. 

Communities of color interspersed throughout the nation are the lifeblood of environmental injustice. Take a look at Detroit, a city encumbered with oppressive levels of air pollution and lead toxicity; or Anniston, Alabama, a town poisoned by the toxic effects of agricultural biotechnology giant Monsanto’s infamous pesticide, glyphosate; or the Fort Belknap Indian Community of Montana and the Rosebud Sioux Tribe of South Dakota, two Indigenous groups whose water systems and sacred lands have been befouled by the Keystone oil pipeline. People of color and ethnic minorities often bear the brunt of environmental contamination far worse than other populations — with little means or political power to change these conditions.

Air quality is a stark reminder of inequality in the United States. Although white people contribute more pollution to our air via their high-level consumption of goods and services, people of color suffer more from it, as shown by recent research performed by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS). 

Further, socioeconomic factors such as lack of access to green spaces, health care, and fresh food, among several others, make less fortunate groups of people more vulnerable to the effects of environmental health hazards. On top of this, large-scale factory farms, dumping grounds, and massive industrial plants are often placed near majority-Black communities: yet another indicator of systemic racism in this country. 

Evidently, the COVID-19 pandemic has spotlighted underlying racial health disparities which have existed for centuries. In November 2020, Harvard University published the results of a nation-wide, cross-sectional study that found that high exposure to fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) is strongly correlated to increased risk of mortality from COVID-19. Given the coronavirus’ effects on the respiratory system, many pre-existing conditions which increase mortality in COVID-19 are the same conditions caused by heavy exposure to air pollutants. 

It’s myopic to look at climate change and racial injustice as if they’re separate issues. We often compartmentalize movements as if they arise from independent causes (i.e. the environmental movement, the conservation movement, the racial justice movement) — but these movements are actually intricately interconnected. Environmental injustice in the United States stems from a complex web of social, economic, political, and environmental barriers affecting people of color (a web which this short article only hits the tip of the iceberg).

Four hundred years of systemic racism has often quelled the voices of people of color, keeping their communities at a profound disadvantage when it comes to fighting injustices, including environmental ones. America was founded upon seizing land and lives from Indigenous people and made into a superpower by capitalizing on free labor and Black lives via centuries of chattel slavery. 

Beyond issues of race, the 21st century neoliberal environmental movement has been characterized by over-emphasizing the power of individual lifestyle choices in attacking climate change. Yes, every step makes an impact and every consumer choice does add up — but seeing that 2020 tied for the planet’s hottest year on record, it’s evident that we have a shrinking window of opportunity to turn things around. It’ll take far more than each of switching to electric cars or a plant-based diet to do so. Instead, we should take a serious look at who climate change is affecting most and actually listen to what these communities have to say.

Once upon a time — rather, just a few weeks ago — a political leadership chock-full of corporate influence, climate change deniers, and political meddling successfully repealed more than 100 environmental regulations in just one presidential term. Despite the possibility of ecological collapse presented by these repeals, we’re now living in a political time full of hope: environmental justice is being placed at the forefront of the national agenda.

President Joe Biden opened his first week in office with a sweeping environmental justice plan, highlighted by re-joining the Paris Agreement and signing a series of executive actions in an attempt to undo — or, at least to mitigate — the cataclysmic damage we did to the environment during the Trump administration. Efforts are being made to diversify the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as well, underscored by Biden’s nominee for EPA administrator, Michael Regan, who would be the first Black man to administer the agency.

These are just the first steps, but first steps are encouraging. Because no matter what issue(s) you care about — whether it be socio-economic inequality, healthcare disparities, housing discrimination, or animal rights — climate change will only make it worse. This is a global wake-up call to what may be the last chance we have to right our environmental wrongs. 

It’s an illusion to believe that climate action is individual. There is no single solution that resonates with everyone, so do what speaks to you. Whether it’s protesting to fetter the influence of the ultra-rich on deciding climate policy, voting for political candidates who demand we have institutional consequences for corporations that destroy the planet for profit, or teaching children how to be anti-racists and love the Earth, do it — and do it full of fire.

In a culture and age characterized by doom-scrolling through Instagram stories and Twitter threads that zero in on an innumerable amount of issues in the world (which seem to be accumulating at an unprecedented rate), it is easy to feel helpless. But as U.S. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY put it, “Hope is not something that you have. Hope is something that you create, with your actions.” 

Through the echo of emotions we feel day in and day out amidst a climate crisis, a global pandemic, and all the other frustrations in our personal lives, it can be hard to try (and sometimes fail) to process it all. If you, like me, are white, and happen to care about the planet, or at least the people on it, you are personally responsible for decolonizing your environmentalism. We need to come together, with passion, unity, solidarity, and common ground — not just because we care about all the marvelous non-human elements on this spinning ball of dust, but because we care about all the people living on it too.

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