To understand the impact of climate change, we need to acknowledge the connection to environmental racism — the disproportionate way that environmental hazards and climate disasters affect people of color and Indigenous communities.
If there is one thing that 2020 and the pandemic era has brought to light, it’s the inequitable systems that exist. Believe it or not, these systemic issues are intrinsically linked to environmental issues. It’s impossible to have a complete picture of the impact of climate change without understanding environmental racism.
Have you ever wondered why Indigenous people make up only 6% of the global population but safeguard an estimated 80-percent of the world’s biodiversity 1? Or why communities populated primarily by people of color have more gas stations than grocery stores? Did you notice a major lack of diversity at the 2021 COP26 conference in Glasgow 2?
The answers to these questions can be explained by “environmental racism.”
What is environmental racism?
This term describes the disproportionate way that environmental hazards and climate disasters affect people of color and Indigenous communities 3. BIPOC communities are systematically burdened by their significant exposure to pollution and toxins.
Blatant environmental injustices based on race occur globally. An obvious example is affordable housing locations. When people from low-socioeconomic communities look for affordable housing, they might end up living in areas located near toxic waste, garbage odor, and landfills. This showcases the intersection of race and negative environmental impact.
Another prime example is the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. In 2014, the city attempted to save money by switching its water source to the Flint River. However, they neglected to treat the water and exposed the city’s majority Black population to deadly toxins like lead. Residents suffered rashes, hair loss, and severe illness that was eventually attributed to the water they drank.
Two years later, an oil pipeline was set to be built on Standing Rock Reservation land, threatening the Indigenous community’s water supply and disrupting sacred burial grounds. White, wealthy communities are often better able to fight policymakers in expensive legal battles, and thus rarely face the same environmental upsets.
In a 2018 study, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that people of color faced a 28-percent greater health risk due to living close to pollution emitting facilities. In this same study, EPA scientists noted that residents of low-income areas are more likely to experience asthma, cardiovascular problems, and premature death due to their proximity to toxic facilities 4.
For climate change activism to be inclusive, it must address inequities and challenge them head-on. Intersectional environmentalism, advocating for the planet and all its people, is the only way to end environmental racism.
How can you combat environmental racism?
1. Acknowledge environmental racism exists
The first step in solving a problem is acknowledging the problem exists. Understand that environmentalism and social justice are interconnected. The sooner we all come to terms with the fact that social justice is environmental justice, the better position we’ll be in to fight against the climate crisis.
2. Contact your representatives
Take your passion for the planet and put it on paper. Writing to your Congress men and women is accessible and effective. Use a database, like Common Cause, to locate your representatives and write them a personalized email explaining your feelings. You can also show up to local town hall meetings and open forums to air your concerns. Ask questions about affordable housing and equitable access to healthcare and food. Letting leaders know what you care about is a step in the right direction towards change.
3. Vote with your dollar
While many large corporations are in the process of transitioning to more sustainable practices, they are often having a negative impact on the planet 5. Every dollar you spend is casting a vote. By spending your money, you are actively working against the effects of these\companies 6. Buying clothing from B-Corp certified brands instead of fast fashion websites is a vote for livable worker’s wages, factory health and safety standards, and less textile landfill waste. Your choices have substantial knock-on effects, no matter how small they may seem.
4. Take the time to learn and unlearn
As you learn about sustainability practices, it’s important that you also unlearn the white-centric environmental perspective that so heavily steers the climate change narrative. Consciously learn about these issues from BIPOC perspectives. There are several books authored by people of color that share experiences that will diversify and challenge what you may know about environmentalism. Leah Thomas and Karen Ramos are a few of the many BIPOC activists using their platforms to educate their audiences on their cultural relationships with the earth and climate disaster impacts on their respective communities.
5. Amplify BIPOC voices
White activists, such as the indisputably impactful Greta Thunberg, tend to become the faces of climate activism. Part of being an intersectional environmentalist is acknowledging that climate activism has been led by underrepresented communities for centuries 7. If you are in a position of privilege, amplify the work of Indigenous activists, like those who led peaceful protests at Standing Rock. It is vital that while supporting grassroots environmental efforts, we include and uplift the efforts being led by those who are most affected by the climate crisis.
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