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.

 

Covid-19, Species Collapse, and the Climate Emergency

In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic comes word that the collapse of thousands of wildlife species sparked by the climate crisis could take place as early as the next decade if greenhouse gas emissions are not dramatically reduced. Just as unsettling: this collapse wouldn’t happen in a long, slow slide, but rather would be far more abrupt than previously thought.

As Alex Pigot, a scientist at University College London and co-author, told a New York Times reporter, “For a long time things can seem OK and then suddenly they’re not. Then, it’s too late to do anything about it because you’ve already fallen over this cliff edge.”

Recent coral bleaching events suggest that ecosystem collapse in tropical oceans may already be underway. Photo by ARC Centre of Excellence licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

The study, published in Nature earlier this month, examined more than 30,000 species on land and in water to determine when climate change would dramatically reduce population levels and what the pace of those changes would be. The scientists identified the hottest temperature that a species is known to have survived and then projected when that temperature would be reached under different emissions scenarios.

The bad news? Abrupt collapse of tropical ocean ecosystems could begin “before 2030” and “spread to tropical forests and higher latitudes by 2050” at the current rate of emissions. On the other hand, if global warming stays below 2 degrees C, the number of species endangered would decline by 60 percent and the number of ecosystems exposed to catastrophic collapse would be limited to less than 2 percent.

The benefits of what one of the researchers called “early and rapid action” on limiting greenhouse gas emissions could hardly be clearer. The extinction of vast swaths of species upon which human survival depends would be avoided, although many people and species would still be vulnerable.

If you see a parallel here to the coronavirus crisis, you’re not alone. Early and rapid action, where it has taken place, has saved thousands of lives. But in those parts of the world that waited too long, once the infections took hold and multiplied  exponentially, it was too late and disaster ensued

So what will it be? Do we take the necessary steps now and prevent the collapse of the ecosystems that keep us alive or do we continue to avoid making the hard decisions and fall off the cliff edge? It’s a stark and unavoidable choice. The one positive thing that could come from the current pandemic, an event that has taken nearly 165,000 lives so far and inflicted widespread economic suffering, would be the wisdom sufficient to make the right choice about the future of our planet.

Coronavirus and the Climate Crisis

The sudden appearance and rapid spread of the coronavirus is an unsettling reminder of how chaotic and uncertain the world can be. Seemingly out of the blue, this new and deadly virus is upending life across the globe — the latest reports identify almost 50 countries that have confirmed cases of infection.

In China, the epicenter of the outbreak, manufacturing, construction, and other economic activities have dramatically slowed down and even come to a halt, while air travel in the country has decreased by 70 percent. As a result, China’s carbon dioxide emissions over the past three weeks have declined by 25 percent.

A significant majority of American voters now support the Green New Deal.

It’s hard to escape the feeling that a similar unraveling of daily life is what the climate emergency has in store for us. The sense of foreboding is palpable. The fragility of modern life, its dependence on complex webs of supply chains, intricate social systems, infrastructure, and technology: all of it is up for grabs as we confront an epic series of disasters.

“Not all that long ago,” David Wallace-Wells observed this week, “climate change was a story unfolding only in the future tense.” Now, though, it has come “roaring into the present with a terrifying fury.” The incineration of one quarter of Australia’s forests in a single fire season underscores his point.

The ravages of climate destabilization, of course, are not confined to environmental destruction. Rising sea levels, extended droughts, flash floods, and wild fires are perhaps its most obvious manifestations. But less visible developments such as malaria, malnutrition, and heat stress will just as surely cause death and misery for millions of people as the climate crisis accelerates. If only global warming could inspire the kind of collective action that our fear of epidemics does.

More than ever, we need to remember that our fates as individuals and nations are intertwined. The poorest countries, as well as the most marginalized communities in the developed world, will continue to find themselves exposed disproportionately to the havoc that is underway. Just as doctors and nurses are rushing forward into the fray to care for patients struck down by COVID-19, the more fortunate among us need to act with a keen awareness that we are all in this together. It’s not just a question of morality; the survival of human civilization depends on it. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”