Fighting Climate Change Isn’t Just an Environmental Issue — it’s a Social Justice Issue Too
By Emily Dao
We constantly hear the narrative that climate change impacts us all. And while that's true, the issue is disproportionately impacting people of color, especially Black, Latino, and Native Americans. And when it comes to environmental justice, we just aren't talking about social equity enough.
A decade ago, Grist reporter Alan Durning wrote on the topic of climate change and race, "It's 2010. Some things have changed; others have not. Racial discrimination has diminished but persists, often in hidden and even subconscious ways."
Even now, seemingly hidden barriers continue to burden marginalized communities with the effects of climate change.
So, even well-intentioned plans to adopt new eco-friendly practices could severely hurt vulnerable groups. The plea for environmental justice deals with ensuring basic human rights. This includes access to clean water, clean air, power, and shelter.
Flint Serves as One of the Most Popular Instances of Denied Environmental Justice.
Perhaps your first time being exposed to environmental racism was when you learned about Flint, Michigan. In fact, University of Michigan researcher Paul Mohai called it "the most egregious example of environmental injustice in recent U.S. history."
When residents complained about contaminated water supply, state officials quickly and publicly dismissed citizens' claims. Residents almost immediately noticed a change in their water supply back in April 2014. Flint is a city of nearly 100,000 people. But, the state waited over a year to address the issue, finally doing so in October 2015…a full eighteen months.
Let's look at some numbers. Black Americans made up only 14% of Michigan. However, the most heavily polluted zip code in Michigan is 84% Black. For Flint and their Republican-controlled state government, NYT report John Eligon said it meant the city had "little political power."
A state report by the Michigan Civil Rights Commission verified that racism was a contributing factor in the water crisis. Government inaction led to a major Legionnaire's outbreak from the poisoned water. This disease is a severe form of bacterial pneumonia. Michigan reported at least 90 citizens were sickened and 12 died. However, a PBS FRONTLINE investigation found that 115 people actually died in Flint.
In January, over 30,000 Flint residents have filed lawsuits against city and state regulators for reparations. But, NPR says it's "unclear" if anyone will ever face trial for this injustice.
"The people in Flint, in terms of justice, holding people accountable and compensation…we are batting zero," Flint resident Claire McClinton told NPR.
So, it's no surprise that people often refer to Flint when it comes to environmental racism.
Lacking Social Equity: Underserved Communities Experience More Exposure to Dangerous Air.
Overwhelmingly, Latino and Black Americans live closer to toxic waste facilities, coal plants, or other areas not compliant with federal air pollution regulations. These instances, in turn, are associated with significant respiratory problems among these marginalized groups.
An analysis in California from the Union of Concerned Scientists affirmed this idea. In the study, they found that U.S., Black, Latino, Asian, and low-income communities suffered the most from poor air quality — and impacted Black Americans the most.
They experience 43% more exposure to PM2.5 pollution than White Californians. (Fine particulates from PM2.5 pollution are smaller in width than human air and form from diesel exhaust, smokestacks, construction projects, etc. Exposure to PM2.5 pollution is actually the 6th leading cause of death in the world.) And you'd think that more would be done to fix this as a respiratory virus, COVID-19 ravaged the world. Instead, the EPA stopped enforcing air pollution rules during the virus. This, among other reasons, explains why people of color are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19.
Tragically, those hit hardest by pollution contribute the least. The same study found that California households without a personal vehicle were actually exposed to higher levels of air pollution. This is because these households are usually in urban areas, which are typically surrounded by heavy traffic.
Those living in low-income households already are at increased risk of a lower life expectancy. They're also more likely to contract chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes. So, for poor communities, living near polluting facilities only makes them more vulnerable to dangerous health effects.
Low-Income Households, People of Color Are Left in the Dark.
The transition to renewable energy revealed a lack of equity for the poor and people of color. (Minority groups often overrepresent impoverished neighborhoods. A study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that 40% of Americans living in poverty are black. Take in mind, Black Americans make up less than 20% of the U.S. population).
840 million people in the world still suffering from energy poverty. Overwhelmingly in the U.S., those struggling to pay for rising energy costs tend to be low-income Black and Latino Americans.
Given that many underserved communities don't even have reliable power, it makes sense that they're also less likely to have access to clean or energy-efficient technologies.
Time and Time Again, Research Reveals Inequity in Clean Energy.
University of Michigan Professor, Tony Reames found financial inequity in clean energy. His study revealed that upgrading to energy-efficient lightbulbs cost twice the amount in low-income neighborhoods compared to more affluent areas. And, for every dollar, Michigan spent on energy efficiency programs for low-income customers? The state spent $4.34 on high-income customers.
Additionally, in New Orleans, Grist reported that 20% of residents' income went to their energy bills. It's no wonder that the city, which has one of the nation's highest poverty rates, is also one of the least energy-efficient in the U.S.
And unfortunately, extreme rising temperatures due to climate change will only continue threatening power grids. This will result in heightened cases of blackouts. California's series of wildfires last year also hurt low-income households the most.
Last year, the California Department of Social Services reported that almost 51,000 households relying on food assistance lived in areas heavily impacted by planned outages to mitigate wildfires. For some, blackouts can definitely be an inconvenience. But, they can be devastating — and even deadly — to the poor and elderly.
Natural Disasters Disproportionately Impact Poorer Communities.
Natural disasters caused over $80 billion in damages in 2019. While disasters don't discriminate which areas they affect, recovery is much harder for the poor.
In times of despair, people tend to rally together. However, there's not an even dispersion of aid and attention. The Atlantic pointed out that private and public aid often "accrue to the haves more so than the have nots."
Brad Kieserman, VP of Disaster Logistics and Operations at the American Red Cross, discussed this after the Camp Fire wildfire.
"Disasters, for most communities, exacerbate already existing issues, which is why we often see in shelters what we sometimes refer to as the least, the last, and the lost'," he told the Atlantic. "The people who had the least, who were the last to get services, who were already at the end, who were lost beforehand, especially financially."
Environmental Justice a Big Challenge for the Native American Community.
According to The Conversation, 90 years of data show poverty rates climbing by 1% after natural disasters, impacting the poor most. For them, resiliency after devastations might not be possible.
"Our research suggests that the rich may have the resources to move away from areas facing natural disasters, leaving behind a population that is disproportionately poor," it wrote.
Then, when applying for recovery aid, Native Americans struggle most. Extreme heat and droughts harm plants and wildlife. They also create higher risks of wildfires and habitat loss. Since Native Americans depend heavily on natural resources, plants, and animals, it makes them vulnerable to climate change.
Yet, the National Congress of American Indians revealed that tribal citizens only received $3 on average for recovery efforts. Conversely, U.S. citizens received $26. Nelson Andrews Jr., Emergency Management Director for Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe discussed this with High Country News.
"It's basically like you're [Congress] setting us up to fail," he said.
The Importance of Your Vote in Achieving Environmental Justice.
After the Green New Deal was introduced back in 2019, AOC's sweeping proposal helped put climate policy on the map. One reason this outline got so much traction was that it heavily confronted social issues. This emphasis on social justice proved its important role in the climate narrative.
Although the Green New Deal did receive significant backlash over its feasibility, it did reinforce the idea that social justice and climate cannot exist as separate battles. In order for us to make significant progress in the fight against climate change, everyone must reap the benefits of a cleaner world.
The environment is the third most important issue in swing states. However, just focusing on the environment is not enough. When creating these solutions, poor, vulnerable communities must also be taken into consideration. We must demand environmental justice to enact real change.
Now more than ever is the time to use your voice, get loud, and stand up for what you believe is right. Now is the time to vote for our future.
This story originally appeared in The Rising, and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
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By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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