Racism in Environmental Justice

By Shannon Mora

In a previous blog post titled Privilege in Sustainability, I discussed the ways the climate action initiative has shown to be targeted towards the young white demographic. The disconnect between minority peoples and the climate action movement is tied to both the price point for sustainable goods and products as well as to the marketing approach of companies in the outdoor and wildlife conservation spaces. These factors make it difficult and arguably impossible for people of color, elderly people, and poorer communities to participate in the consumer’s effort to combat climate change. Barriers to participate breed an apathetic and lethargic attitude towards climate change issues. Why does this matter? Because people of color begin to believe they have no place in the movement, and worse, that climate change does not really affect them.

The reality is the negative impacts of climate change disproportionately affect communities of color. Little to no proper representation exists to protect front line communities. Let’s take a look at Puerto Rico as an example. As a commonwealth of the United States of America, our government decides on much of the legislation that critically impacts Puerto Rican people despite the lack of proper representation in the US Congress. Back in 2017 Hurricane Maria, a super storm caused by the increasing impacts of climate change, catastrophically damaged the island. It was the harshest Hurricane felt by Puerto Rico in modern memory, taking down communications networks, destroying electrical grids, and worst of all taking lives.

The state of Florida and Texas also suffered natural disasters this same year. The government distributed five million meals to the citizens of Texas to offset the hardship these families were experiencing. The same US government distributed only 1 million meals to the citizens of Puerto Rico. Florida received 4,500 blue roofs in response to the disaster while Puerto Rico received 500. The response time and magnitude was clearly disproportionate despite the similarities in crisi type. Puerto Rico was not prepared for such a disaster to hit nor did the citizens receive the proper relief from the US government that it deserved.

Likewise, low income communities and typically communities of color in the United States are impacted by environmental hazards simply as a result of zoning decisions. Waste sites, dumps, sewage processing plants, and other undesirable infrastructures are consciously placed on the perimeters of towns and cities. This forces the only affordable housing opportunities to be surrounded by high volumes of greenhouse gas emissions and toxins. Health issues such as asthma are prevalent in these communities due to these specific zoning decisions. Strategic policies like these create health issues in communities which suffer limited access to healthcare yet are unable to access higher quality of dwelling. This ensures that these disadvantaged communities remain in a vicious cycle.

Disproportionate impacts of climate change on minority communities are directly related to systemic racism. Racism interferes with our ability to work together, and therefore prevents us from combatting and ending climate change together.