Along the Mississippi River, there rests an 85-mile span of land dubbed "Cancer Alley." The area received its name because its residents, predominantly Black individuals, are 50 times more likely to be diagnosed with cancer and other chronic diseases compared to the average citizen. The ever-growing sea of petrochemical plants continues to jeopardize the well being of marginalized communities. The truth is becoming clearer than ever: climate change is not a blanket crisis, and communities of color bear a disproportionate burden.
Environment racism, a term coined by Civil Rights Leader Benjamin Chavis in 1982, refers to racial discrimination in terms of climate-related policy making, both domestically and internationally. Unlike personal racism, which stems from internal biases towards certain groups, environmental racism exists at a systemic level, meaning it concerns the way our institutions function. Environmental racism is nothing new, but it is glossed over by popular mainstream media sources.
To effectively combat environmental racism, we must first understand how it came to existence. Our society is one rigged with power disparities at every level. There’s all-powerful China who has massive political sway in multilateral organizations, then there are developing nations in the Global South who are continuously hindered from coming to the table. When looking domestically, people of color are granted less political power and social privileges. Therefore, it comes as no shock that these same inequalities translate into environmental policy making. Since marginalized groups have long been denied participation in climate conversations, they remain unable to advocate for legislation that benefits them.
The Racial Divide of Climate Change
In the US, communities of color bear a disproportionate burden when it comes to the impacts of climate change. Given that oppressive practices keep minorities away from high political positions, white elites tend to make decisions on their behalf. This further marginalizes those who are already in poor living situations by placing them in closer proximity to polluting facilities, toxic waste units, and petrochemicals. A study by the NAACP concluded that minority communities inhale 40% more toxic air than their white counterparts, making them 38% more susceptible to asthma from climate-related causes and three times more prone to die at the hands of pollutants. A definitive correlation exists between race and the likelihood of death by climate change – one that will only worsen without tangible change at the governmental level.
Environmental Racism in Global Governance
The footprints of environmental injustice extend beyond the domestic sphere. Power imbalances in global governance play a major role in the way countries are influenced by climate change. For instance, in the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference (COP 26), many efforts on the original agenda intended to benefit developing countries failed. It was decided at the conference that less developed nations would not be given adequate funding to combat the climate crisis, and the lack of minority representation at COP 26 allowed this idea to go untouched.
COP 26 exemplifies a broader societal issue, where nations who have the least advocacy face a series of broken promises and bailouts, leaving them ill-equipped to counter climate change. To put global environmental racism into perspective, this looks like corporations in advanced nations generating massive amounts of waste and shipping them to landfills in the Global South, where a large portion of the population lives below the poverty line. However, the negligible authority developing nations have allowed these abuses to run rampant.
The Moral Duty to Care
As humans, we all have an obligation to care about this growing problem, regardless of our nation’s economic standing. Sizeable polluters, such as China, are the least impacted by climate change’s effects, whereas citizens from Kenya would be at a far greater risk of death. Moreover, Black Americans inhale 56% more polluted air than they produce, whereas Whites breathe 17% less.
It is a morally unjust fact that the actors who contributed least to climate change consistently end up in the most vulnerable positions. It is our responsibility to dismantle practices that subject people of color to egregious health hazards.
Each and every person can help seek environmental justice by using your power of speech to call out problematic politicians, boycott unsustainable corporations, amplify the platforms of climate equity activists, and educate fellow citizens on this matter. Climate change is much more than wildfires and melting ice. It is about each Black American who has died from toxic waste because of their racial identity. It is about the children in Haiti who developed asthma because of the petrochemicals outside their house. Environmental justice is a global battle, and it necessitates a global solution that calls upon us all.
Written by Sophia Li
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