An Overview of Environmental Justice (EJ)

“This is not an elitist issue. This 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.”

- Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) on climate change

The EPA defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”

A (Very) Brief Overview

What is environmental justice?

People of Color (POC) are disproportionately affected by environmental degradation, including pollution and climate change. Environmental justice advocates have justly called this phenomenon 'environmental racism.' Communities of color – which also tend to be lower income – are routinely and systemically the bearers of the brunt of pollution. Some main examples are the placement of toxic waste landfills, air pollution, access to green space, and groundwater quality. A study found that Black Americans who make $50-$60k per year are more likely to live in polluted neighborhoods than white Americans making $10k per year – this demonstrates that race trumps class when it comes to environmental justice.

A few examples of Environmental Racism:

1. Bronx asthma rates

Communities which are predominantly black and hispanic bear the burden of air pollution, which is caused mainly by white people. A study found that Black Americans are exposed to 56% more pollution than is caused by their consumption, and Hispanics 63% more. Residents in the south Bronx are hospitalized at 5x the rate of the national average and 21x the rate of other neighborhoods in New York City.

2. Flint, Michigan water pollution

The population demographic in Flint, Michigan is majority Black, and 45% fall below poverty line. Previously their water source was piped in from Detroit. But in 2013 the State Governor decided to temporarily pump water from the Flint River despite concerns from citizens about the water quality and safety. Although the water was highly corrosive, it was left untreated causing poisonous levels of lead to leach from aging pipes into thousands of individuals’ water supplies. Residents complained that the tap water looked, smelled, and tasted foul while officials told them the water was safe. As a result, 9,000 children were supplied lead-contaminated water for 1.5 years, and the accumulation of these levels of lead can cause damage to the brain and nervous system. After residents sued, the city started providing bottled plastic water bottles to residents in 2018.

3. Louisiana Cancer Alley

Located in the corridor between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, there is an area often referred to as 'cancer alley.' It contains over 100 chemical refinery plants and therefore also contains some of the most toxic air in America. The Denka Power Plant produced chloroprene, a chemical that the EPA has labeled as a “likely human carcinogen.” In terms of cancer rates, individuals living within a mile of the plant have cancer rates of 7%. If you move half a mile farther, the cancer rate drops by a significant 40%, demonstrating a clear causal correlation between the chloroprene and cancer.

4. PCB dumping in North Carolina

Toxic waste dumping in North Carolina led to the birth of the EJ movement in 1982. Warren County, North Carolina is a poor, rural and overwhelmingly black community. Citizens demonstrated against a decision from the state government to dump 6,000 truckloads of soil that contains PCBs (a toxic waste) as it raised concerns about toxic waste leaching into drinking water.

5. On an international scale

There are countless examples of communities of color who are currently subjected to greater risks. Island Nations are particularly threatened – one of the starkest demonstrations of the unfortunate paradox that those who contribute least to climate change will be affected the most, with less capacity to adapt. The rising water levels in the Marshall Islands are a great example – these levels will only become more exacerbated in the future as sea levels continue to rise due to global warming. Even with significant cuts in carbon emissions that policymakers have promised at international conventions like the Paris Accord, sea levels will still rise by one to two feet by 2100.

Hopefully these examples provide a better understanding of ways in which communities with predominantly Black & Hispanic residents are more greatly affected by the climate crisis.

Watch this 3 minute video to learn more.

Also check out the @intersectionalenvironmentalist on Instagram to stay updated on the intersection of racism and environmental justice.

The bottom line: As we learn more about the devastating impacts of climate change, we also learn that there are hotspots of greater impacts, which tend to be most prominent in poorer communities. Those with resources can raise awareness, money, and public attention to ensure that their communities are unsullied, and those without resources lack that power.

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