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Environmentalism must address environmental racism to achieve true justice

Racism and economic status play a huge role in who is the most impacted by environmental issues.
Olivia Harden October 19th, 2020
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Twenty-four-year-old sustainability advocate Zureyma Johnson was born in Belize but lived in Midland, Texas—a big oil town—for most of her life. When she left Texas to go to school in Boston, she started experiencing some health problems. It wasn’t until she talked to a doctor with a functional medical certification that they were able to pinpoint that after living in Midland for five years, the environmental toxins from corporate polluters were having a negative impact on her health.

“My mom was going through health issues as well. And then just knowing people in my community, (I started) just making more and more correlations and I just started realizing, oh my goodness. What we’re doing to the planet we are doing to ourselves,” Johnson said. 

Artists Gan Golan and Andrew Boyd debuted their Climate Clock in Manhattan Union Square, which stressed that based on current emission rates, the earth’s carbon budget will reach zero in seven years, meaning more natural disasters and widespread famine, forcing environmental migration. As climate change continues to worsen, young people are becoming more and more interested in intersectional environmentalism, an inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for both the protection of people and the planet. 

When looking at traditional environmentalism, humans are solely seen as the cause of the problem, but it neglects to acknowledge that racism and economic status play a huge role in who is the most impacted. And while it is the responsibility of all of us to save our home, BIPOC communities and those living in low-income areas have already been experiencing the worst of it. With the climate crisis in particular, many people see it as a vastly approaching problem, but these communities have been facing climate change for a while now.

“For example, mainstream environmental groups focus on greenhouse gas emission reduction. But for environmental justice communities not only are they dealing with the impact of the climate crisis, but also, toxic air pollution. That exacerbates the impact,” said Carolina Martínez, the associate director of policy at the Environmental Health Coalition. “Someone once said ... our communities are a prophecy of what the world is going to face if we don’t address the issue now.”

This movement aligns closely with the environmental justice movement, which “seeks to address environmental racism,” according to Martínez. The Indigenous water protectors in Standing Rock and the fight for clean water access in Flint, Michigan, are modern instances of organizing for environmental justice. It’s important to acknowledge that movements that center environmental justice are not new. It stems from the civil rights movement. But the term “environmental racism” was coined in 1982 by Dr. Benjamin Chavis, then-director of the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice, when grassroots organizations staged a month-long protest against the siting of a chemical landfill in Warren County. This fight has been going on for decades.

This summer we have witnessed widespread hurricanes in the South and an explosive fire season like never before on the west coast, in which at one point major cities like Seattle and Portland had the worst air quality in the world. All this is happening during a global pandemic and one of the most critical election years in U.S. history. Now more than ever, it is important to take an intersectional approach. 

“You’re dealing with with wildfires [in California] and COVID and local pollution all at the same time and I think one of the limitations we’ve seen on environmental regulations is that often it focuses on one issue, one facility, one chemical at a time, not paying attention to the fact that in communities of color people are exposed to multiple of these things at the same time. An incremental approach isn’t getting to the heart of the problem,” said Caroline Farrell, the executive director of The Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment

There’s a general consensus among environmentalists that what the U.S. is doing to fight the crisis is not enough. Since President Donald Trump took office, he has backed the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, which was created to ”strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change.” And up until the presidential debate on Sept. 29 Trump has refused to acknowledge that climate change even actually exists. Over the last four years, Trump has completed nearly 70 environment-related rollbacks with more to come. 

The president has an F on his climate change policy report card from Greenpeace. In comparison, former Vice President Joe Biden’s plan has a C rating, and a whole page on his website is dedicated to environmental justice. His plan stresses creating a green-centered economy and reaching net zero carbon emissions, but does approve fracking and hydraulic fracking. His plan would take about 30 years to accomplish. Johnson, like many other people in the environmental space, finds his approach to be too conservative, but young advocates like Hernandez and Johnson believe we can hold them accountable. 

“Bluntly put, our planet cannot survive another presidency with Trump being the incumbent, so Biden is our best choice. I do think that his plan is conservative, especially with what we need, but it’s better than nothing,” Johnson said. “Biden wants to be able to win over environmentalists as well as blue-collared workers, understandable. I do have faith in his team though. He has a plan. Trump doesn’t.”

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One policy that has become a talking point in the intersectional environmentalism space is the Green New Deal, a bill created after the youth led organization, the Sunrise Movement, staged a sit-in in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office. Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) introduced it. It’s considered to be the most progressive and aggressive climate change plan out there. Biden’s plan adopts certain policies from The Green New Deal. Twenty-four-year-old environmental justice activist Isaias Hernandez worries about the integrity of the bill since its inception. 

“The Green New Deal falls short because it’s been edited a lot just within the last few months … I do think it’s a great step towards adjusting for the revolution of environmental justice, but it still needs to incorporate BIPOC voices in this movement, not necessarily the [current] government,” Hernandez said. 

Education plays a role in how the climate crisis is perceived and is a big part of the solution coming from an intersectional approach. The mission of Hernandez’s Queer Brown Vegan is to make knowledge about environmentalism more approachable and accessible because after he finished college at UC Berkeley, he found information to describe his lived-experience was privatized. 

“Being in academia, I realized how elitist it was,” Hernandez said. “In the discourse of the climate crisis many people don’t have the language or the tools to really talk about it with their past experiences. Part of education, for me, is to build and develop their framework for how to navigate environmentalism.”

Another important part of this fight is civic engagement to advance policy. Voter suppression runs rampant in communities of color. The government historically has disenfranchised these same groups through policy and lack of resources. Martínez notes the Environmental Health Coalition has a dedicated initiative called United to Vote to reach those communities.

“Historically, our communities have been disenfranchised from land use planning, being at council meetings, and from voting and our representatives have failed to meet our needs. There is no trust in the system,” Martínez said. “But [what] we are realizing is that organizing with low propensity voters and we have trusted messengers, that’s when the community comes out and votes.”

Martínez said that when looking at environmentalism from an intersectional lens, it’s important to listen to communities of color.

“The solutions are in our communities because we are the communities facing this. We are the ones that know what the issues are because our communities are the ones experiencing this,” Martínez said. “If we don’t have them on the table, we are not going to get the innovative solutions.”

Despite the challenges that lie ahead, Johnson holds out hope for the future.

“It’s so easy to stay down. There are a lot of things [working] against the movement. But I have to hope people will put their differences and their privileges aside to learn and be willing to listen and not negate people’s experiences,” Johnson said. 


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