Melting ice caps, rising sea levels, increasing temperatures, droughts, storms, and species going extinct. These are all events that have been headlines in local, national, and global media covering climate change and global warming. Scientists have relayed the urgency of the matter; for example, in 2019, the United Nations claimed that we only have until 2030 before the damage done to our beautiful planet will become irreversible (“Only 11 Years Left”). While individual actions account for some of these damages, large industries and corporations have caused the bulk of the harm. For the most part, this is not new information. However, what is being ignored in many headlines is the question of who will feel these impacts first.
For hundreds of years, the privileged of society have continuously collected all the benefits at the expense of minorities, and the effects of climate change are no different. Climate justice is a social justice movement that recognizes that the effects of climate change disproportionately affect the marginalized of society (Simmons). Instead of only focusing on the urgency of climate change, climate justice advocates for the most vulnerable communities, such as minorities, low-income households, the elderly, and the disabled. Although everyone will eventually feel the effects of climate change, we need to focus on those who are already starting to feel negative impacts. To combat this crisis, we need to shift to a more eco-friendly lifestyle and hold big corporations accountable for their huge contributions towards climate change and climate injustices. Further, we must vote for representatives who support greener legislation and recognize that climate change is a social justice issue. Lastly, we must use our own voices to spread awareness about both the harm that is being done to our planet and those who will be the first to feel the effects. Not only can such awareness prevent further deterioration to our planet, but it can also begin to mend the issues of inequality.
The causes of climate injustices boil down to the negative impacts of global warming. The frequent burning of fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide into the air. Deforestation prevents the absorption of carbon dioxide and the release of oxygen (WWF Australia). Lastly, the rise in large-scale agriculture and farming has increased the emissions of greenhouse gasses. As a result of these three actions, the Earth’s temperature is steadily rising (WWF Australia). While climate change is a threat to everyone, those with social or economic disadvantages are the most susceptible to its effects.
In the United States, the most vulnerable communities include people of color, the elderly, sick, and low-income households. Due to their location, health, or financial situation, they are more likely to feel the harsh repercussions of climate change sooner. People of color are more at risk of air pollution because hazardous sites are disproportionately placed near them. They have a higher exposure to pollution, making them more likely to suffer from asthma (Bell). The sick and elderly will have a harder time adjusting to the rising temperatures and other environmental changes, due to their age and health (Simmons). Low-income families are affected by flooding, rising temperatures, and frequent storms while lacking the necessary resources to protect themselves (Bell). An example of this is Hurricane Katrina, in which Black homeowners received significantly less amount of aid than white homeowners due to the gap in housing values (Bell). As a result, many families were displaced due to a lack of resources needed to rebuild. As droughts and floods continue to occur more frequently, it will be harder for those with fewer resources to access clean and healthy food and water (Bell). As the effects of climate change become more prominent, these groups of people will feel the effects first due to a lack of resources, income, and ability.
Indigenous groups in the United States have had their lives and cultures uprooted time and time again, and today the same thing is happening as a result of climate change. For example, the majority of the Indigenous Louisiana Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe on the Isles de Jean Charles has already been forced to leave their home life in response to rising sea levels. Once an abundant island that thrived off gardening, fishing, and hunting, it is now almost fully submerged and unpopulated due to hurricanes and weather changes (Ward). Less than forty families are left, as the cost to save their island is becoming too much to afford (Ward). Roch Naquin, a member of the tribe, can be viewed as the first of many to be called a climate refugee, saying, “My first preference would be to stay here on the island, but prudence says to take advantage and move with the community” (Ward). Naquin has been left with no choice but to relocate with the rest of the tribe as conditions worsen. This is a clear example of climate injustice, as the marginalized have been forced to leave their homes because of worsening conditions and lack of resources to protect themselves (Ward).
Another disturbing case of climate injustice can be seen in a neighborhood just minutes away from the Fordham Rose Hill campus. Mott Haven, located in the South Bronx, has crippling air pollution levels due to frequent Fresh Direct trucks coming in and out of the neighborhood, nearby traffic, and The Wall Street Journal’s printing press (Kilani). As a result, asthma hospitalizations are five times the national level in this area, resulting in the nickname “Asthma Alley” (Kilani). In this case, we see vulnerable communities suffering as a result of unsustainable methods of production from large corporations such as Fresh Direct, while the community’s populations are not even necessarily the target consumers. Furthermore, 97% of residents are Black or Hispanic, which creates inequality in the distribution of environmental benefits and burdens (Kilani). These statistics alone are incredibly frightening, especially when the residents of “Asthma Alley” are rarely the ones buying these products, yet they are still being negatively impacted by their production. In response to the ongoing crisis, policymaker Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez preaches that climate change “is a quality of life issue. You want to tell people that their concern and their desire for clean air and clean water is elitist? Tell that to the kids in the South Bronx [who are] suffering from the highest rates of childhood asthma in the country” (Kilani). Cortez is directly addressing the topic of climate justice, claiming that climate change is an issue that needs to be solved in order to achieve equality. Case studies in areas such as Mott Haven and the South Bronx are crucial examples of the vulnerable of society receiving the brunt of climate change while the privileged benefit.
To end climate injustices, we must address racial injustices and vice versa. In a TED Talk, British politician David Lammy discusses the idea of climate change feeling like such a little problem when Black Americans are fighting the police and racism constantly. However, he later recognizes that Black people are some of the most affected by climate change, especially in America (Lammy). The final words of his TED Talk read, “Now is the time for Black and climate movements to come together unequivocally and say, “We can’t breathe” (Lammy). This quote is incredibly successful in combining both racial injustice and climate injustice, as both are intertwined. We must fight for the equality of all people to save our planet and protect the people who do not have the resources to protect themselves.
It is not enough to only focus on saving the environment, and it is now time to recognize that the poor and marginalized are the most immediately affected. This is a huge social injustice, as vulnerable groups in American society are receiving unequal environmental burdens every day. To protect these groups from the impacts of climate change, we need to start by recognizing our faults and contributions towards global warming. We need to shift into a more eco-friendly lifestyle, to lessen the environmental impacts. This can be done by reducing our meat intake, creating less waste, using public transportation or carpooling, and supporting environmentally aware businesses (David Suzuki Foundation). More importantly, we need to hold big corporations accountable for their immense contributions. In the Mott Haven crisis, big businesses such as Fresh Direct and The Wall Street Journal serve as the direct cause of the substantial asthma rates. Businesses can take a stand by focusing more on social justice in the workplace in conjunction with their carbon footprint, collaborating with other companies to incorporate climate justice into their business planning, and engaging with communities in which their environmental burdens are highest (Beecham).
Another thing that we must do is vote. Elect candidates who are constantly advocating for a greener society and legislation that supports it. Democrats Raúl M. Grijalva and A. Donald McEachin have introduced the Environmental Justice for All Act, which declares that all people have the right to pure air, water, and other environmental benefits while promoting climate justice (“Environmental Justice”). Supporting policymakers who will vote for and promote a greener legislature in correspondence with climate justice will create more awareness, movements, and solutions. We can also start supporting organizations such as the Climate Justice Alliance, which is advocating for the vulnerable communities affected by climate change (“Climate Justice”). By supporting environmentally-oriented politicians we can better advocate for the equality and human rights of all the marginalized groups of society. No one should suffer from these impacts because they are unable to protect themselves.
Next time you are thinking about melting ice caps, rising temperatures, and animals going extinct, remember that Indigenous groups are already having to flee their land due to flooding, Black communities breathe in toxins and contaminated water, and future generations will find it harder to access healthy and clean food and water. Eddie Bautista, an executive director for the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance has said, “This is not just about the environment, it’s about the community, it’s about jobs, it’s about justice” (“Climate Justice”). We need to wake up and look at our actions and how they impact the communities in which our friends, family, and neighbors may live. We must call upon big corporations to take responsibility for their actions and find solutions in making production more sustainable. We must spread awareness and change our environmentally harmful ways of life. We need to recognize the effects our actions have on others. Most importantly, we must fight for the equal distribution of the benefits and burdens of climate change. A step in the right direction in the fight for climate justice is a step towards equality for all.
Beecham, Marie. “How to Unite the Fight for Racial Equity and Environmental Action.” NRDC, 29 Sept. 2020, www.nrdc.org/stories/how-unite-fight-racial-equity-and-environmental-action.
Bell, Jasmine. “5 Things to Know About Communities of Color and Environmental Justice.” Center for American Progress, 8 May 2017, www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/news/2016/04/25/136361/5-things-to-know-about-communities-of-color-and-environmental-justice.
“Climate Justice.” Catskill Mountainkeeper, www.catskillmountainkeeper.org/climate_justice.
“Environmental Justice: The House Committee on Natural Resources.” Natural Resources Committee, naturalresources.house.gov/environmental-justice.
Kilani, Hazar. “’Asthma Alley’: Why Minorities Bear Burden of Pollution Inequity Caused by White People.” The Guardian, 4 Apr. 2019, www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/apr/04/new-york-south-bronx-minorities-pollution-inequity.
Lammy, David. “Transcript of ‘Climate Justice Can’t Happen without Racial Justice.’” TED, www.ted.com/talks/david_lammy_climate_justice_can_t_happen_without_racial_justice/transcript?language=en#t-99891.
“Only 11 Years Left to Prevent Irreversible Damage from Climate Change, Speakers Warn during General Assembly High-Level Meeting | Meetings Coverage and Press Releases.” United Nations, www.un.org/press/en/2019/ga12131.doc.htm.
Simmons, Daisy. “What Is ‘Climate Justice’?” Yale Climate Connections, 23 Oct. 2020, yaleclimateconnections.org/2020/07/what-is-climate-justice.
David Suzuki Foundation. “Top 10 Things You Can Do about Climate Change.” 24 Feb. 2021, davidsuzuki.org/what-you-can-do/top-10-ways-can-stop-climate-change.
Ward, Bud. “Louisiana Climate Refugees.” Yale Climate Connections, 16 Oct. 2020, yaleclimateconnections.org/2016/06/louisiana-climate-refugees.
WWF Australia. “Causes of Global Warming.” WWF, www.wwf.org.au/what-we-do/climate/causes-of-global-warming#gs.11rj96).