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We Can’t Talk Climate Change Without Talking Environmental Racism

flickr/Agustin Ruiz

Structural racism is deadly, and not just because of police shootings of unarmed black youth. Environmental racism — disproportionate exposure to pollution and toxicity — is a slower, more insidious form of violence against low-income communities of color.

The term “environmental racism” was coined in the 1980s to highlight the placement of low-income or minority communities in proximity to environmentally hazardous or degraded environments, especially toxic waste sites. Race plays a major role in the location of polluting industries in the U.S. This is a pattern that stretches deep into U.S. history, and we’re watching it play out right now with the water crisis currently raging in Flint, Michigan.

It’s telling that last night, black stars like Ava DuVernay and Ryan Coogler ditched the #OscarsSoWhite Academy Awards to help raise money for this crisis at the #JusticeForFlint fundraiser. Racism played a key role in this crisis — and, moreover, it’s continuing to play a key role in the devastating progression of climate change across the globe.

The Toxic Situation In Flint

A series of structural inequalities combined to create the toxic catastrophe in Flint, most of which boil down to valuing money over human health and life. For decades prior to 2014, Flint — a majority-black city in which 41.5% of the population lives below the poverty line — relied on Detroit’s water system. Facing financial difficulties, a state-appointed official switched the source to the Flint River with the aim of saving the city $5 million in two years.

The Flint River has been contaminated for decades by industrial toxins created under the capitalist belief that more is better. For generations, motor city behemoths GM and Buick City dumped industrial waste directly into the river, polluting on the order of tens of billions of gallons of industrial waste per day. Buick City shut operations in 1999; GM continues to run.

The demolition site of Buick City (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

After the city switched to using the Flint River for its water supply in 2014, Flint residents began complaining of horrible smells coming from the tap water. Children became sick with horrendous rashes. Others told stories of hair loss and mood changes that they believed were linked to their tap water, which flowed the color of rust.

It wasn’t until September 2015, after high levels of lead were found in the blood of children — almost 900 times the EPA limit for lead particles — that these stories of poisoning were taken seriously. After two years of toxicity, however, the irreversible and deadly damage has already been done to this low-income community of color. Children in Flint, among the most vulnerable members of the population, will have to cope with lifelong and irreversible brain damage caused by lead poisoning from the public water supply.

The Flint water crisis is both a class and a race issue. Companies nationwide dump toxic waste directly into poor communities’ air and water supply; this pattern is well-documented.

Affluent communities would leverage their privilege to prevent such an injustice from occurring in their homes and communities. The America we live in is one where the white and wealthy are healthy, while low-income communities of color are poisoned by the powerful, in the name of making a profit.

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Decisions about the environment are tied to political power, and political power is tied to race and class. Landfills, sewage treatment plants, smelters, incinerators, and other hazardous waste sites end up in the poor’s backyard. In this way, white and affluent communities are favored over black communities with regard to municipal services. People in low-income communities of color bear the burden of environmental degradation and industrial pollution. Even more egregiously, officials who are elected to protect these communities routinely ignore the voices of the poor and vulnerable.

The Flint water crisis could be considered a small-scale environmental injustice, in terms of the number of people it affects. But it’s mirrored in one of the largest threats that the global population currently faces: climate change.

Environmental Justice Writ Large

Climate change is environmental injustice writ large. As with other examples of environmental racism — the location of coal-fired power plants, the dumping of nuclear waste, the lack of adequate public transportation — it disproportionately harms indigenous communities and people of color. These communities also have the fewest resources to cope with climate change, as a direct result of institutionalized racism.

Just as the toxic water slowly but inevitably poisoned the Flint community, many feel immobilized by the slow-acting but irreversible impacts of climate change. Corporations and governments prioritize profits now over the life and health of future generations. Climate change is a result of business-as-normal policies. These actions amount to a slow poisoning of our collective future.

In January 2014, I spent a month living in Tuvalu, a tiny coral atoll nation in the South Pacific on the frontlines of climate change. In this Pacific island nation of around 11,000 citizens, the highest point is only 4.5 meters above sea level. The seas have been rising at a steady rate of 5 millimeters per year since the Australian government started monitoring the main wharf in Funafuti in 1993. In the event that Tuvalu disappears underwater, New Zealand has agreed to accept the country’s citizens. A number of Tuvaluans have already moved to New Zealand; not just immigrants, they are “climate refugees.”

A variation of this problem faces communities in the Arctic. According to the UN’s most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, the region is warming over twice as fast as the global average, and many changes are already visible. Weather patterns are increasingly unstable. Sea ice is declining. Pack ice that supports marine hunters is further from shore and often too thin to travel to safely. Storm surges erode coastal areas. Sunburns, never experienced before, are now common.

Global climate struggles are geographically unique, yet linked. One of those links is the great irony of climate change: Across the board, communities that contribute the least to causing climate change are the most severely affected.

On December 12, 2015, at the United Nations conference on climate change, 195 countries adopted the first universal climate agreement, which aims to hold the increase in the global average temperature to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels in order to reduce the risks and impacts of climate change. The climate justice movement, though, is by no means done. While this agreement marks a touchstone in the struggle, now, more than ever, is the time to keep momentum going on these critical issues — which is why events like #JusticeForFlint are so important.

White environmental activists must not ignore what activists of color already know: Environmental racism is real. The people who are disproportionately affected by climate change (and a whole host of other environmental issues linked to reckless capitalism) are black and brown, and that’s an injustice we all have to work to correct.

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