From unprecedented heat waves in the Pacific Northwest to devastating hurricanes in the Southeast, climate change has caused significant damage to the United States. This issue is one that has attracted a lot of mainstream activism — with the environmentalist movement being wildly popular for decades. Today, however, especially in light of the widely publicized discourse surrounding systemic racism, many social justice activists are challenging mainstream environmentalism. These champions of racial and social equity claim that the modern climate movement is heavily whitewashed and ignores the most vulnerable victims of extreme weather: Black and Brown folks.
The inequitable impact of climate-related disasters and anomalies takes many forms. Black and Indigenous people die as a result of overheating at disproportionate rates. A study over 14 years (2004-2018) published by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) found that non-Hispanic whites make up the largest number of deaths by overheating, but Indigenous people have the highest rate of overheating deaths (0.6 per 100,000) and Black people with the second highest rate (0.3 per 100,000). This disparity can be attributed to what the CDC refers to as “social vulnerabilities” that are systemically tacked onto minority groups. From living in neighborhoods with less heat absorbing greenery to poor health facilities to lesser access to proper cooling systems, these factors contribute to lowered life chances for non-white people in extreme heat situations.
And the disproportionate impacts aren’t just physical but financial, as well. Historically, when hurricanes hit, Black families tend to see more devastating and costly damage, and in the aftermath of the storm, Black and Brown residents often receive less financial support from their local governments. The most well-known example of this inequity is the fallout from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Before the catastrophic storm even hit, low income neighborhoods dominated by Black and brown Louisiana residents were already at higher risk for more costly damages because these neighborhoods were situated in more architecturally vulnerable areas. Once Katrina was over, however, the state was found to be providing less financial support to Black residents with a similar amount of damages to white residents. In a report by an urban policy organization, a Black family was given over $50,000 less to repair their home than a white family with a home of comparable size and damage.
These issues of lowered life chances for Black and brown people at the hands of extreme weather and pollution are one that the mainstream environmentalist movement fails to address. In a 2020 interview with Yale 360, climate activist Elizabeth Yeampierre doles out this same criticism. She states in her conversation with the magazine that “the environmental movement, the conservation movement…were built by people who cared about conservation, who cared about wildlife, who cared about trees and open space and wanted those privileges while also living in the city, but didn’t care about Black people.” In saying this, she speaks directly to those environmentalists who approach their activism from a point of privilege. These individuals understand climate change and the destruction of the planet as an abstract issue; a threat to the green spaces that they have the privilege of enjoying, and an impending sort-of apocalypse where there is no clean air or water. In the meantime, they ignore the millions of people who currently live in the environments they fear. All over the country there are places where asthma is more prevalent because of poor air quality — like in South Philadelphia which has some of the highest hospitalization rates due to asthma in the city because of an oil refinery in the area — and green spaces are few and far between. And these spaces tend to be predominantly non-white.
In this way, Yeampierre notes that the modern environmentalism movement excludes those who are immediately at risk of the negative impacts of climate change. And she is not alone in her criticism. In New Zealand, the Auckland chapter of Greta Thunberg’s School Strike 4 Climate dissolved, citing the group’s internal racism as a reason for its collapse. The group was said to have centered around white voices who appeared to be taking on climate activism as a hobby while neglecting the voices of Indigenous peoples in New Zealand who are far more negatively impacted by the climate crisis.
It is important to understand that, although it is not traditionally represented, climate change and the health of the environment is central to social justice. As Yeampierre phrased it when describing her own entrance into social justice work, “…if we [can’t] breathe, we [can’t] fight for justice.”
These powerful words not only signal the need for healthy environments for people of color, but also poignantly echo the cries of Black Lives Matter protesters. The words “I can’t breathe” have become a plea for justice in the fight for racial equity following the death of Eric Garner at the hands of police in 2014. The mirroring between Yeampierre’s statement and this iconic three-word rallying cry demonstrate an undeniable intersection between racial justice and what has come to be known as climate justice.
This form of environmentalism known as climate justice or environmental justice focuses on fighting the climate crisis while also dismantling the systems that force some groups to suffer more from the impacts of the crisis than others. By doing so, this movement seeks to promote change on the global scale by focusing its efforts on benefitting smaller communities.
Yeampierre gives a perfect example of how climate activists differ from champions of environmental justice when discussing the implementation of climate solutions. Where climate activists look to single solutions to target a singular problem — like using offshore wind power to reduce carbon emissions — climate justice advocates consider the larger implications of these solutions. Yeampierre notes that while using offshore wind would reduce carbon, which may be a solution to a climate issue, “the environmental justice problem is we dump tons of nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides and PM2.5 [particles] into the lungs of the host community.”
This more holistic approach to environmentalism ensures that the issue of the climates crisis can be addressed at the root while maintaining the visibility of those communities that are most vulnerable to environmental disasters. Through an environmental justice lens, one can examine not just how emissions from an oil refinery impact air quality, but also how poor air quality can cause upper respiratory issues people living near the plant and consequently result in more COVID deaths among this community. Understanding how to draw connections between actions that damage the environment and how that damage directly impacts people of color will allow for climate change solutions to benefit those who are most disadvantaged by environmental destruction. When seeking ways to improve social equity in the United States and around the world, though it may not have been a central part of the conversation before, environmentalism is a major factor in this feat.
Although traditional white-dominated climate activism is still the prevailing form of environmentalism, there are organizations that center their activism around people of color. Elizabeth Yeampierre’s organization UPROSE operates as an organizing space for Puerto Ricans in Brooklyn to develop sustainable organizing and development plans for the community. Black Millenials 4 Flint is a collective of young Black activists created in response to one of the most notorious cases of environmental racism, the Flint water crisis. Finally, the Climate Justice Alliance is a group of over 70 environmental justice organizations that work to shift the focus of the environmental movement from simple conservation to a movement that “[places] race, gender and class at the center of the solutions equation.”
Organizations like these are changing the narrative surrounding climate change and are working to ensure the efforts to solve the crisis focus on those who are impacted the most. Investing in this kind of activism is vital to improving the health of Black and brown communities, and this large-scale investment is beginning to become a reality. The Biden administration has made strides through its $2 trillion infrastructure plan to make housing in extreme weather vulnerable areas more resilient to climate change with better utilities and transportation infrastructure.
This is significant progress in protecting minority communities from climate change, but to continue the work, it’s not just about making Black communities more weather resilient. It is essential to eradicate the need for this resilience in the first place and, most urgently, protect communities from environmental health risks within human control like placing polluting machinery in residential communities.