Racial Justice and Climate Change

We are currently in the grips of a constellation of crises: the Covid-19 pandemic, the struggle to confront systemic racism, and the ongoing climate emergency. The three do not operate independently of each other, but rather are closely linked, even intertwined. How we address them and their interconnections will determine the future of our nation and the world. “You can’t build a just and equitable society on a planet that’s been destabilized by human activities,” writes Sarah Kaplan. “Nor can you stop the world from warming without the experience and the expertise of those most affected by it.”

The climate emergency, the pandemic and its racially disproportionate impact, and the killing of George Floyd and other shocking instances of police violence have ruthlessly exposed the longstanding racial injustice that forms the core of the American experience. “Whether it is a global pandemic, climate change, or police brutality, people of color — particularly black communities — are always the first and worst hit, and it must end,” Alvaro S. Sanchez, the Environmental Equity Director at The Greenlining Institute in Oakland, rightly insists.

Fighting climate change and Covid-19, in short, means we have to fight racial injustice. As activist  Elizabeth Yeampierre contends, “you can’t treat one part of the problem without the other, because it’s so systemic.”

A George Floyd mural in Houston. Photo by Alfred J Fortier licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

The evidence is overwhelming that communities of color are the most threatened by Covid-19. The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, made available as the result of a New York Times law suit, shows that Latinos and African Americans  have been three times as likely to become infected as their white neighbors. Furthermore, African Americans and Latinos have been nearly twice as likely to die from the virus as white people.

When it comes to exposure to pollution, the data is not any better. “Sixty-eight per cent of black people live within thirty miles of a coal-fired power plant,” notes  Rev. Lennox Yearwood, Jr. in a recent interview with Bill McKibben. “We know that the destruction of Hurricane Maria, Harvey, Katrina, and Superstorm Sandy all had a direct impact not only on marginalized and vulnerable communities but on communities of color, which reinforces that racial justice and climate justice are linked.” Yeampierre points specifically to the prevalence of asthma and upper respiratory disease in black communities. In her words, “we’ve been fighting for the right to breathe for generations.”

Just how bad are the disparities? Researchers from the University of Minnesota and the University of Washington last year compared Americans’ exposure to fine particulates to how much pollution their consumption generates. They found that whites experience 17% less exposure to pollution, on average, than their own consumption causes. In stark contrast, African Americans are exposed to 56% more pollution than their consumption generates, and Latinos experience 63% more. It would be hard to find a more striking illustration of white privilege.

White environmentalists often jump to the conclusion that communities of color are too caught up in their day-to-day struggle for survival to care about climate change. But, in fact, climate change is not an abstract concept to black and brown people; they are faced with the consequences of climate instability on a near daily basis. As a result, these under-served communities represent what one analyst calls “a well of support for broader action.” In fact, a poll conducted a year ago by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that 49% of white respondents expressed “alarm” or “concern” about global warming. The figures for Latino and African-American respondents were 69% and 57%, respectively.

The unmistakable message of our time is that we have to break out of our silos and build a broad-based, multiracial coalition to fight for both climate and racial justice. We must end the practice of making some communities sacrifice zones, understanding that in the end we all pay a price for this short-sighted approach. Instead, we must build a clean energy economy that benefits all and strengthens the resilience of local communities.

 

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