Does Climate Change Discriminate?

Amanda Pell

Climate concerns can seem like nonpartisan issues, unrelated to race or income status. After all, it’s just about the trees, man! But, environmentalism is also an incredibly intersectional issue. Climate change, and the host of challenges it brings, can disproportionately impact low-income and minority communities.

“There’s a perception that environmentalism is for people who hike and like polar bears and recycle,” says Ryan Madden, a sustainability organizer for the Long Island Progressive Coalition. But environmentalism isn’t just a feel-good movement for the yuppies. “This is a deeply politicized issue,” he says. Take climate change, for example. While climate change is largely accepted by the scientific community as fact, it’s the inequitable distribution of climate impacts on vulnerable communities that we may have yet to fully understand.

From the smog in the air

Though the biggest impacts from climate change may be a ways off, we can see environmental injustice playing out already in the form of pollution exposure, says Laurie Johnson, co-founder and Executive Director of the Climate Cost Project and environmental economics instructor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

“Poor people and minorities are at the front lines of the extractive industry and the chemical production industry,” says Johnson. A 2017 study by the Clean Air Task Force found Black Americans are exposed to 38 percent more polluted air than white Americans. They’re also 75 percent more likely than anyone else to live right next door to industrial facilities, refineries, and dumps.

While experts have long debated if these facilities were built to actively target poor and minority communities or if demographics changed after these facilities were built—a sort of chicken and the polluted egg scenario—new research may have shed some light on how deep this environmental injustice goes. After analyzing 319 commercial hazardous waste treatment, storage, and disposal facilities sites in the U.S. between 1965 and 1995, researchers from the University of Michigan and University of Montana found a “consistent pattern over a 30-year period of placing hazardous waste facilities in neighborhoods where poor people and people of color live.” Largely, the researchers found that the benefit to the facilities came down to a path of least resistance: low-income and minority communities simply didn’t have the political sway to fight these unwanted facilities.

To the gathering storm

That level of environmental inequity only worsens when we look past current pollution issues and toward projections for future climate impacts. The United Nations’ most recent report predicts that we have lost the opportunity to prevent climate damage from reaching dangerous levels, which will result in a widespread environmental crises as soon as 2040. When that happens, it’s marginalized communities that will be most vulnerable to disaster.

“You have to talk about the preexisting vulnerabilities before you can really talk about the effects during the storm and then [what comes] after the storm,” says Johnson. Low-income employees tend to work more hours but have less stability and fewer job benefits, so when natural disasters occur, these workers have less flexibility to cope. “If they lose even a day’s worth of work that means they can’t put food on the table, they can’t pay their rent, they can’t purchase their medicines,” says Johnson. Less disposable income also means less funding to obtain critical emergency resources like food, clean water, and repairs.

That’s doubly concerning since marginalized communities often lack quality infrastructure to begin with. “We see it in the projects especially,” says Aton Edwards, an emergency preparedness expert and co-founder of the International Preparedness Network, who helps marginalized communities prepare for and recover from natural disasters. “If you’re living in an apartment building or a tenement that’s in bad shape, when a disaster rolls through, it’s gonna be in even worse shape. And often times the landlords neglect the buildings that need the repairs.”

Shaky foundations with no way out

Poverty also tends to be concentrated in rural areas—which often lack public transportation and the facilities needed to weather through the storm and its immediate aftereffects—or in cities, where these systems are frequently insufficient or defunct. “All of the things that we rely on, need to live, are weaker,” says Johnson. “And then they break down much more easily.”

The economic and structural factors that contribute to a community’s vulnerability are also what makes it impossible for marginalized residents to escape and relocate when a climate disaster hits. “They can’t get away out of harm’s way because they often don’t have access to transportation, either public or private,” says Johnson. Those without financial resources find themselves trapped. And for the nation’s incarcerated—more than half of whom are African-American and Hispanic—a climate disaster can be a death sentence. “When all of these climate disasters happen, they literally are not evacuating prisons,” says Johnson. “They are just letting them get flooded and poisoned and die.” Prisons in New Orleans were not evacuated until four days after Hurricane Katrina hit, and during the evacuation that preceded Hurricane Irma—one of the largest evacuations in history—left thousands of inmates behind.

By comparison, those with socioeconomic privilege have access to a bevy of resources and can cope with the impending disasters brought on by climate change. “They’re buying more insurance. They’re moving,” says Johnson. “In Miami, there are places where wealthier people are displacing low-income people who are on higher ground.” In one of these places, a neighborhood called Little Haiti, long-time residents are being forced out by rising rents, while Haitian-owned businesses are losing their leases when landlords are approached by developers with better offers.

Natural disasters also create scenarios in which demand far outweighs supply, so people with high incomes are better equipped to pay steep premiums for services while marginalized individuals may find themselves suddenly priced out of even the most basic necessities. In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, a Texas Best Buy was caught pricing cases of water at $42, while in 2017 Delta was accused of raising the price of a flight out of the path of Hurricane Irma from $547 to more than $3,200.

Put simply, Johnson says, “Those who can get away, will get away.” Those who cannot must wage a hard uphill battle for their own survival.

Moving the needle

Unfortunately, even among groups fighting for environmental justice, low-income people and people of color remain underrepresented. “A vast majority of the staff in the big NGOs and environmental organizations like the Sierra Club, World Wildlife Foundation, the Nature Conservancy, are white,” says Madden. “In my experience, those closest to the problem are closest to the solutions but are often furthest from power.”

Another major stumbling block, says Johnson, is representation in government. “The vast majority of Americans, both parties, support environmental regulation,” says Johnson. “So you have to ask yourself: why are so many politicians being elected that are explicitly and blatantly anti-environment?”

Voter suppression, for one. “The majority of people that don’t vote are low income or minority. They often don’t have time, they have several jobs, they don’t have the ability,” says Johnson. “They’re disenfranchised.” The Environmental Voter Project has found that, of registered voters that prioritize environmental issues—a contingent numbering over 20 million—almost half didn’t cast votes in the 2016 election. This “silent green majority” is comprised largely of people who are Black, Hispanic, or earn less than $50,000 annually. Those are the same groups that tend to be targeted by voter suppression efforts, so these marginalized community members are not having their climate concerns represented in government.

For people with socioeconomic privilege, the answer is clear. “You’ve got to get involved,” says Edwards. “If you don’t mind pulling a duck out of an oil spill, then the same effort you put toward saving these animals you need to put toward saving your fellow human.” At the end of the day, says Johnson, it’s about learning people’s stories and experiences, to better understand the ways in which our shared struggles impact each other differently. “What we’re trying to do is bring it down to the personal, grassroots level,” she says. “How are people feeling now? What’s happening to them in their personal lives right now?” Johnson’s Climate Cost Project collects documentary footage of people’s localized climate experiences and shares them with those who live in different places, in hopes of helping to spread understanding beyond the bounds of people’s individual communities.

Madden’s hope is that hearing those stories encourages people to get involved. “When it comes to what is actually gonna move the needle on this stuff, it’s not individual changes, unless that individual change is your choice to engage in collective action.” That collective action, says Edwards, must be intersectional. “With the same white people in the same old meetings, you get the same old results. We don’t have time for that now.” By showing up, supporting marginalized communities, and amplifying the voices of people who go underrepresented, we can leverage our privilege in the fight not just to protect the environment, but to protect the communities most vulnerable to it, too.