No racial justice, no climate justice: Climate change will harm people of color most

Climate Justice

No racial justice, no climate justice: Climate change will harm people of color most

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A Study by Yale University’s Climate Change Communication Project shows America’s most inconvenient truth: In the fight for the climate, minorities have the most to lose

If the global anti-climate change protests of September 2019 were a triumph for the climate movement, the racial justice protests of the last six weeks signal how much work there is to do. In the United States, it doesn’t make any difference what town you’re in or which economic strata defines you: Racial inequality is omnipresent. The best current example of that is Covid-19. Pandemics are like hurricanes: They prey most heavily not on citizens who are old or young, but on those who are predominantly poor and, in America, black or brown. 

Of the more than 110,000 American deaths from Covid-19, a disproportionate number of victims were people of color. The pandemic forced statewide shutdowns, which triggered economic instability and mass unemployment.  And all the collateral damage hurt people of color more than whites. So it can’t be a surprise that ultimately the murders of George Floyd and, earlier this year, Ahmaud Arbery, drove tens of thousands of protesters into the streets, not just across the U.S. but around the world. More than a century after the end of the Civil War and another half century after the civil rights movement, the reigning civic, moral demand from near and far is that the U.S. must finally confront the historic systemic racism that has compounded racial inequity across all of American society for generations. 

Climate and privilege 

And climate change? Environmental experts and statisticians have been telling us for years about the economic imbalance in the effects of global warming. Poor people and people of color are far more likely to suffer the devastating effects of weather and pollution. Thus the same segment of the population is more conscious of the damage climate change already brings. In April this year—more than a month before George Floyd’s murder—Yale University’s program on Climate Change Communication published a study that clearly supports that suggestion. Black and brown people care more about the climate than whites. Why aren’t their voices rising to the fore?

The good news is that the confluence of neglect and discrimination is attracting more systematic scientific scrutiny than ever. If not accepted by white society at large, it has become a given among environmental scholars that the fight against climate change is inseparable from the fight against racial injustice. 

It has become a given among environmental scholars that the fight against climate change is inseparable from the fight against racial injustice. 

In the U.S., race is the single biggest indicator of who lives near a toxic waste site. African Americans and Latinos breathe in significantly more air pollution than they are responsible for producing, according to another  2019 study, while whites on average are exposed to 17% less than they produce. Pollutants increase the risk of chronic health problems, which in turn make illnesses like Covid-19 much deadlier. These environmental and health disparities “exacerbate economic inequity,” says Matthew Ballew, a social psychologist at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. The widespread protests against police brutality further underscore this divide. “We need to make connections between these issues and as a society start stringing together the different types of justice, because they are interrelated,” Ballew says.  

A path to change

To that end, environmental organizations like the Sunrise Movement seek policy changes that address multiple injustices at once. Founded in 2017, the youth-based organization strongly supports the Green New Deal as a way to create jobs, fix the climate crisis, and redress historic inequities all at the same time. Sunrise co-founder and executive director Varshini Prakash is a member of the task force established by Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders to help make the Green New Deal part of the Democratic party platform. “Equity and justice have to be the lens through which we solve [the climate] problem,” Prakash says in a video she posted on Twitter. “If it doesn’t work for or benefit the most disadvantaged among us…it won’t solve the problem.”

“Equity and justice have to be the lens through which we solve [the climate] problem.”

Younger activists are more likely to engage simultaneously with different groups and approach the crisis from multiple angles “because they have a greater awareness of intersectionality in all its forms and all its definitions,” says Parrish Bergquist, a political scientist at the Yale climate change program. “Youth-led groups [like Sunrise] are thinking about these issues as totally together.”  

She and Ballew led the recent Yale University study that found that those most impacted by global warming are also the most engaged in addressing it. Sixty-nine percent of Hispanics and 57% of African Americans said they were “alarmed” or “concerned” about climate change, compared to 49% of whites. People of color were also twice as likely as whites to join a campaign to fight global warming, though they remain “substantially underrepresented in environmental decision-making bodies,” says Ballew. 

Voices of the Green New Deal

It’s hard to lead the fight against climate change when you are fighting simply to be seen and heard. “Black Americans who are already committed to working on climate solutions still have to live in America, brutalized by institutions of the state, constantly pummeled with images, words and actions showing just us how many of our fellow citizens do not, in fact, believe that black lives matter,” wrote Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a marine biologist and policy advisor, in a recent Washington Post op-ed. “Climate work is hard and heartbreaking as it is…When you throw racism and bigotry in the mix, it becomes something near impossible.”

That’s why it’s so essential to link climate action to social and economic change. Proponents of the Green New Deal understand this. Among Democrats, African Americans tend to care less than most constituents about climate change. “But once you bundle in economic and social programs and make climate policy speak to economic and social concerns, they become much more supportive,” says Bergquist. In short, whatever deal the politicians settle on, at the very least, it will have to be color blind, not just green. 

Photo by Noah Labinaz. New York, September 2019.

Written by

Susan H Greenberg

Susan H Greenberg is a writer editor, and teacher who spent 22 years Newsweek magazine. Her work has also been published by The New York times, The Washington Post, the Atlantic and Scientific American. She teaches writing at Middlebury College in Vermont, where she lives with her husband, three children, two dogs, a rabbit, and a corn snake that terrifies her.