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Fighting Climate Change Isn’t Just an Environmental Issue — it’s a Social Justice Issue Too

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Fighting Climate Change Isn’t Just an Environmental Issue — it’s a Social Justice Issue Too
A coalition of NYC Black Lives Matter activists and environmental justice groups march on the 51st anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X to demand justice for the people of Flint, Michigan in NYC on Feb. 21, 2016. Erik McGregor / Pacific Press / LightRocket / Getty Images

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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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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