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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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By Tara Lohan

Warming temperatures on land and in the water are already forcing many species to seek out more hospitable environments. Atlantic mackerel are swimming farther north; mountain-dwelling pikas are moving upslope; some migratory birds are altering the timing of their flights.

Numerous studies have tracked these shifting ranges, looked at the importance of wildlife corridors to protect these migrations, and identified climate refugia where some species may find a safer climatic haven.

"There's a huge amount of scientific literature about where species will have to move as the climate warms," says U.C. Berkeley biogeographer Matthew Kling. "But there hasn't been much work in terms of actually thinking about how they're going to get there — at least not when it comes to wind-dispersed plants."

Kling and David Ackerly, professor and dean of the College of Natural Resources at U.C. Berkeley, have taken a stab at filling this knowledge gap. Their recent study, published in Nature Climate Change, looks at the vulnerability of wind-dispersed species to climate change.

It's an important field of research, because while a fish can more easily swim toward colder waters, a tree may find its wind-blown seeds landing in places and conditions where they're not adapted to grow.

Kling is careful to point out that the researchers weren't asking how climate change was going to change wind; other research suggests there likely won't be big shifts in global wind patterns.

Instead the study involved exploring those wind patterns — including direction, speed and variability — across the globe. The wind data was then integrated with data on climate variation to build models trying to predict vulnerability patterns showing where wind may either help or hinder biodiversity from responding to climate change.

One of the study's findings was that wind-dispersed or wind-pollinated trees in the tropics and on the windward sides of mountain ranges are more likely to be vulnerable, since the wind isn't likely to move those dispersers in the right direction for a climate-friendly environment.

The researchers also looked specifically at lodgepole pines, a species that's both wind-dispersed and wind-pollinated.

They found that populations of lodgepole pines that already grow along the warmer and drier edges of the species' current range could very well be under threat due to rising temperatures and related climate alterations.

"As temperature increases, we need to think about how the genes that are evolved to tolerate drought and heat are going to get to the portions of the species' range that are going to be getting drier and hotter," says Kling. "So that's what we were able to take a stab at predicting and estimating with these wind models — which populations are mostly likely to receive those beneficial genes in the future."

That's important, he says, because wind-dispersed species like pines, willows and poplars are often keystone species whole ecosystems depend upon — especially in temperate and boreal forests.

And there are even more plants that rely on pollen dispersal by wind.

"That's going to be important for moving genes from the warmer parts of a species' range to the cooler parts of the species' range," he says. "This is not just about species' ranges shifting, but also genetic changes within species."

Kling says this line of research is just beginning, and much more needs to be done to test these models in the field. But there could be important conservation-related benefits to that work.

"All these species and genes need to migrate long distances and we can be thinking more about habitat connectivity and the vulnerability of these systems," he says.

The more we learn, the more we may be able to do to help species adapt.

"The idea is that there will be some landscapes where the wind is likely to help these systems naturally adapt to climate change without much intervention, and other places where land managers might really need to intervene," he says. "That could involve using assisted migration or assisted gene flow to actually get in there, moving seeds or planting trees to help them keep up with rapid climate change."


Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis. http://twitter.com/TaraLohan

Reposted with permission from The Revelator.

An illustration depicts the extinct woolly rhino. Heinrich Harder / Wikimedia Commons

The last Ice Age eliminated some giant mammals, like the woolly rhino. Conventional thinking initially attributed their extinction to hunting. While overhunting may have contributed, a new study pinpointed a different reason for the woolly rhinos' extinction: climate change.

The last of the woolly rhinos went extinct in Siberia nearly 14,000 years ago, just when the Earth's climate began changing from its frozen conditions to something warmer, wetter and less favorable to the large land mammal. DNA tests conducted by scientists on 14 well-preserved rhinos point to rapid warming as the culprit, CNN reported.

"Humans are well known to alter their environment and so the assumption is that if it was a large animal it would have been useful to people as food and that must have caused its demise," says Edana Lord, a graduate student at the Center for Paleogenetics in Stockholm, Sweden, and co-first author of the paper, Smithsonian Magazine reported. "But our findings highlight the role of rapid climate change in the woolly rhino's extinction."

The study, published in Current Biology, notes that the rhino population stayed fairly consistent for tens of thousands of years until 18,500 years ago. That means that people and rhinos lived together in Northern Siberia for roughly 13,000 years before rhinos went extinct, Science News reported.

The findings are an ominous harbinger for large species during the current climate crisis. As EcoWatch reported, nearly 1,000 species are expected to go extinct within the next 100 years due to their inability to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. Tigers, eagles and rhinos are especially vulnerable.

The difference between now and the phenomenon 14,000 years ago is that human activity is directly responsible for the current climate crisis.

To figure out the cause of the woolly rhinos' extinction, scientists examined DNA from different rhinos across Siberia. The tissue, bone and hair samples allowed them to deduce the population size and diversity for tens of thousands of years prior to extinction, CNN reported.

Researchers spent years exploring the Siberian permafrost to find enough samples. Then they had to look for pristine genetic material, Smithsonian Magazine reported.

It turns out the wooly rhinos actually thrived as they lived alongside humans.

"It was initially thought that humans appeared in northeastern Siberia fourteen or fifteen thousand years ago, around when the woolly rhinoceros went extinct. But recently, there have been several discoveries of much older human occupation sites, the most famous of which is around thirty thousand years old," senior author Love Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Center for Paleogenetics, said in a press release.

"This paper shows that woolly rhino coexisted with people for millennia without any significant impact on their population," Grant Zazula, a paleontologist for Canada's Yukon territory and Simon Fraser University who was not involved in the research, told Smithsonian Magazine. "Then all of a sudden the climate changed and they went extinct."

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Transitioning to renewable energy can help reduce global warming, and Jennie Stephens of Northeastern University says it can also drive social change.

For example, she says that locally owned businesses can lead the local clean energy economy and create new jobs in underserved communities.

"We really need to think about … connecting climate and energy with other issues that people wake up every day really worried about," she says, "whether it be jobs, housing, transportation, health and well-being."

To maximize that potential, she says the energy sector must have more women and people of color in positions of influence. Research shows that leadership in the solar industry, for example, is currently dominated by white men.

"I think that a more inclusive, diverse leadership is essential to be able to effectively make these connections," Stephens says. "Diversity is not just about who people are and their identity, but the ideas and the priorities and the approaches and the lens that they bring to the world."

So she says by elevating diverse voices, organizations can better connect the climate benefits of clean energy with social and economic transformation.

Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.