Why Is Climate Change a Racial Justice Issue?

Author: Joe McCarthy

David Goldman/AP
Why Global Citizens Should Care
The climate crisis is intensifying worldwide and the United Nations urges countries to invest in the communities most impacted. You can join us in taking action on related issues here

You used to not need a heavy winter coat in Houston, Texas. But this past February, a long-lasting blast of cold air arrived, causing widespread power outages, damage to homes, and disruptions to public services.

Dozens of people died from carbon monoxide poisoning, hypothermia, and other causes, and thousands of people were displaced from their homes, according to the Guardian.

The freak weather event, most likely made worse by climate change, exposed extreme levels of inequality, as the most vulnerable and marginalized communities — largely Black and Latinx people — disproportionately faced health consequences, lost electricity and heat, and struggled to recover financially in the aftermath.

In a few harsh weeks, the freeze showed how climate change manifests along the fault lines of inequality, fault lines that are often shaped by racial disparity.

Why Is Climate Change a Racial Justice Issue? 3 Things to Know
  • Climate change interacts with and worsens existing inequalities in society that are often shaped by racism.
  • Climate action requires an intersectional approach that takes into account the most impacted communities.
  • Scientists, environmentalists, and racial justice advocates agree that the best way to overcome the climate crisis is by empowering and listening to Indigenous communities. 

Climate change is frequently talked about in vague terms — temperatures and sea levels will rise, for instance, making it harder for everyone to survive. But its effects are already here and they “disproportionately impact those who are most vulnerable,” according to Rueanna Haynes, senior legal adviser for Climate Analytics. 

“In many countries, economic, environmental, and health vulnerability is also tied to the question of race — communities who have less access to different sorts of resources tend to be communities who are more easily exploited,” Haynes told Global Citizen.

“When you think about this at the country level, it’s the vulnerable countries who will be bearing the beating of climate change,” she said.

What this means in terms of demographics is that Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color (BIPOC) are disproportionately experiencing the impacts of climate change: flooded homes, vanishing sources of drinking water, disrupted local economies, extreme heat waves.

These racial disparities stem from global inequality, according to Haynes. People who are wealthy and have access to enough resources can anticipate and adapt to climate change, while people who are poor and people who live in poor countries have less ability to do so. Centuries of colonialism based on white supremacy have given this inequality an overarching racial dimension, leading to what Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the late Nobel Prize-winning human rights activist, called a “climate apartheid.”

In both national and global contexts, the growing climate crisis is an urgent matter of racial injustice, according to advocates who spoke with Global Citizen. Stopping the climate crisis, therefore, can help achieve racial equity. 

The Long History of Environmental Racism

Hamilton Dam on the Flint River.
Hamilton Dam on the Flint River.
Image: George Thomas/Flickr

Anthony Rogers-Wright, director of environmental justice at the civil rights law firm New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, began to see climate change as a matter of racial injustice “from the get go.” Early in his career, he read the United Church of Christ’s seminal Toxic Waste and Race report that brought the concept of “environmental racism” into popular usage.

“The report indicated that race, more so than income and class, was the major determinant for where polluting industries and toxic waste were located [in the US],” Rogers-Wright said. “It became apparent to me that the root causes of the climate crisis are white supremacy, patriarchy, and colonization.”

Rogers-Wright said that climate organizations should study the history of the colonial era and slavery in particular to understand how the global economic system — and its “dehumanization” of certain populations — has brought the world to the brink of ecological ruin.

The supercharged form of capitalism that colonialism created, in which anything could be commodified, is the foundation for the modern era’s transactional relationship to nature that has led to forests, wetlands, and marine habitats being destroyed for commercial purposes.

By adopting a framework of intersectionality, many aspects of the environmental crisis become more clear, Rogers-Wright said, noting that the history of environmental racism helps to explain why the fossil fuel industry was able to lie to and misinform the public for so long

“You can’t have runaway emissions without dehumanization,” he said, suggesting that the climate crisis would be more easily contained if it were not for structural forms of racism.

Black communities in the US have long protested that pollution from coal factories, animal processing facilities, and garbage incinerators causes significant health problems. But political leaders have consistently failed to address this injustice, and now greenhouse gas emissions from those same industrial sectors are warming the planet to a dangerous degree, Rogers-Wright said.

The COVID-19 pandemic further illustrates the consequences of environmental racism, he said. Across the US, Black people have died at a far higher rate from COVID-19 than the general public, partly because they’re more likely to experience levels of pollution so extreme that their immune systems weaken. 

“COVID-19 was one of the great elucidators,” Rogers-Wright said. “It basically illuminated systems of oppression that were in place for a long time, from health care to the environment to the economy. There’s no shock that the people who are suffering the most from COVID-19 are the most affected by environmental racism.” 

As temperatures and sea levels rise, BIPOC communities have been disproportionately impacted in the US because of how historic injustices have left them exposed to environmental crises.

Hurricane Katrina is one example. In 2005, New Orleans’s underfunded levee system broke under the weight of the ocean and flooded the city. Black people were up to four times more likely to die than white people in some neighborhoods and they accounted for 80% of the people who lost their homes. In the months and years afterward, Black residents were much less likely to return to their homes.

When the extreme rain of Hurricane Harvey fell on Houston more than a decade later in 2017, Black and Latinx residents were disproportionately harmed. These events foreshadow the scientific warning that hurricanes will become both more severe and frequent and could further worsen inequality.

The racial injustice of climate change can be seen at the global level as well.

Only a few dozen countries, primarily those that have benefited from colonialism, are responsible for the magnitude of the climate crisis, having released the vast majority of greenhouse gases that are heating up the planet. At the same time, the people in countries that have released the least emissions stand to suffer the most from it

The people of the Pacific Island nation Tuvalu, for instance, could soon lose their homes to sea level rise. Many other Pacific Island nations could disappear underwater as well, entire geographies of culture lost in the process.

Collectively, Pacific Island nations account for less than 0.03% of global emissions. Meanwhile, an Oxfam study found that the world’s wealthiest 1% emit twice as much carbon dioxide as the poorest 50%.

People’s Lives Are at Stake

Thanu Yakupitiyage, head of US communications at 350.org, was born in Sri Lanka, where coastal populations are threatened by sea level rise and extreme storms

“Having grown up on an island that’s being impacted by sea level rise and being from the Global South, I was taught about the impacts of climate from a young age,” Yakupitiyage said. 

“But I don’t think I understood that it disproportionately impacted people of color in the Global South until much later while working with immigrant rights communities and I began to see the intersection,” she said. 

The intersectionality of climate change is clear in other ways — people living in poverty and women are more impacted by it.

A recent analysis by the think tank GermanWatch found that the 10 countries most threatened by climate change are in the Global South, countries that have been harmed by colonialism.  

In 2019, Hurricane Idai made landfall in three of the most vulnerable countries — Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Malawi — causing flooding and landslides that killed more than 1,000 people, destroyed more than 100,000 homes, and damaged schools and hospitals. Flooding throughout 700,000 hectares of farmland caused disruptions to tens of thousand of farmers, which led to food shortages. The countries are still recovering from the disaster. 

This photo issued March 19, 2019, taken within last week, flood waters cover large tracts of land in Nicoadala, Zambezia, Mozambique. Floodwaters have created "an inland ocean," endangering many thousands of families in the aftermath of Cyclone Idai.
This photo issued March 19, 2019, taken within last week, flood waters cover large tracts of land in Nicoadala, Zambezia, Mozambique. Floodwaters have created "an inland ocean," endangering many thousands of families in the aftermath of Cyclone Idai.
Image: World Food Programme/AP

A United Nations spokesperson said that the constricting effects of poverty contributed to the severity of the storm’s impact. If funds for climate-resilient infrastructure and agriculture had been mobilized years earlier, the hurricane wouldn’t have been so devastating.

The UN has been calling on wealthy nations to fund climate mitigation and adaptation efforts in poor countries through financing groups like the Green Climate Fund (GCF). But this request is a race against time — the longer wealthy countries delay, the more expensive the climate crisis will become. In fact, the UN estimates that $1.8 trillion invested in climate adaptation can prevent $7.1 trillion in climate costs.

From an economic perspective, climate adaptation makes sense. But countries are increasingly focused on domestic rather than international matters — especially in light of the pandemic — a shift that threatens climate action funding. Bringing an intersectional perspective to the table can help to generate the needed funds, especially as countries seek to achieve the UN’s global goals. 

“Climate change is not just a blank slate issue that’s not connected to other issues,” Yakupitiyage said. “We have to think about the climate as an umbrella issue that is inherently connected to other forms of justice, including racial and migrant justice, and ultimately human rights.”

Climate Action Must Be Intersectional 

Approaching climate action as a matter of racial justice doesn’t change the primary demand of the climate movement: stop the crisis by reducing greenhouse gas emissions as rapidly as possible. 

Achieving net zero emissions requires global economic transformation — countries have to restructure everything from the production of energy and food to the construction of buildings and transportation. Based on current trends, however, this transformation is a long way off

“It’s not just finance,” Haynes said. “We’re woefully behind on mitigation action, we’re woefully behind on where we should be in terms of adaptation. On every single indicator we are underperforming. That being said, there’s still reason for optimism that we can course correct. What it will require is a lot more advocacy and a lot more political will.” 

Haynes said that wealthy countries can spur climate action by, for starters, waiving the debt of poor countries. COVID-19 recovery plans also offer governments an opportunity to invest in global climate action, poverty eradication, and improved public health. 

These efforts can advance racial justice by prioritizing adaptation measures for BIPOC communities. The decade ahead can feature a green economy, recovering biodiversity, and thriving communities — but only if investments are made now, Yakupitiyage said.

“If we’ve learned anything from this pandemic, it’s that governments cannot wait until the last minute to try to mitigate a crisis,” she said. “We need to stop playing politics with the climate crisis and really take into account those who are most impacted.”

Yakupitiyage added that policies around migration and displacement have to be updated to account for the climate crisis. 

“The reason why people are migrating from Honduras and Guatemala is a complicated set of factors that includes the climate,” she said. 

“These communities have been experiencing extreme drought and they can’t till the soil like they used to so they move to urban environments that often have violence and corruption. There’s a whole host of reasons for people leaving their home, but if you try to claim asylum based on climate change, you will not be given access,” she said.

A family walks their son through a flooded neighborhood in a bucket in Tanggerang on the outskirts of Jakarta, Indonesia, Jan. 2, 2020.
A family walks their son through a flooded neighborhood in a bucket in Tanggerang on the outskirts of Jakarta, Indonesia, Jan. 2, 2020.
Image: Tatan Syuflana/AP

The UN’s Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration seeks to address this blind spot, but key countries such as the US have failed to sign on. If a consensus isn’t achieved on the issue, then forced movement due to climate change will only get worse. By the end of the century, the World Bank estimates that 140 million people will be displaced from their homes by climate impacts.

The UN urges countries to provide assistance to communities impacted by sea level rise, extreme storms, debilitating droughts, forest fires, and more. But countries also have to make amends for the historic injustice of environmental racism, according to Rogers-Wright.

“This is an unpaid debt,” he said, referring to the broader idea of reparations. “The longer we continue to not pay this debt, the longer it’s going to accumulate because of the conditions that descendents of slaves are experiencing in contemporary times, whether it’s Hurricane Katrina, Sandy, or Maria.

“In addition to the quotidian aspects of the climate crisis, lives are being cut short, ended, and altered,” he said. “And that all has something to do with slavery, back to the original point I’ve made about dehumanization.”

Nick Estes, a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, argues that countries risk reproducing the same racial inequalities of the past in the emerging “green economy” if redistributive policies are not undertaken.

No longer can environmental organizations operate in a vacuum, Rogers-Wright said. They have to address their own histories of racism by hiring and elevating BIPOC voices, investing in the hardest-hit communities, and reallocating resources to frontline organizations, the advocates who spoke with Global Citizen said.  

“The environmental community, the so-called ‘Big Greens,’ really have to take a look in the mirror and ask themselves how they’re contributing to the problem,” he said. 

Rogers-Wright said that organizations like Friends of the Earth have adopted a racial justice lens. Yakupitiyage’s organization, 350.org, has long embraced a model of restorative justice and intersectionality as well. 

“The reason why we do this is because we’re trying to build a mass movement to turn around the climate crisis,” she said. “We believe in people power and climate change is the umbrella issue connected to economic and racial injustice, health, and housing disparities, and much more that all communities should be fighting to stop. This is about ensuring all our communities right to thrive in an equitable and just world that works for all.”

People power begins at the grassroots level with the community organizations that are repairing the natural world and improving the living conditions of the people most affected by climate change.

Haynes said that Indigenous people in particular have a lot to teach the world about climate action — from sustainably managing farmlands to caring for biodiversity. 

“There’s so much that can be learned from Indigenous communities who have had hundreds of years of experience living in harmony with nature,” she said.