Environmental Racism: Why Climate & Race Are So Closely Linked

Jamie McIlhatton
Aug 12, 2020 · 5 min read
Image by Oladimeji Odunsi

I may be speaking too generally here, but I feel we’re notoriously bad at overlaps or fuzzy boundaries. Anything within those grey areas, we tend to do everything we can to avoid. We love clarity and placing everything into a box. You’re either right-wing or left-wing, you can’t float somewhere in between; you’re either religious or against religion. The issue with this way of thinking is that life and the world we live in are much too complex to accommodate it.

It’s incredibly important to consider the extent to which many elements of society and the challenges we face every day are so closely connected and mutually influential. Furthermore, if we truly want to shape a future around social equality, environmental & public health, then we must gain a deeper understanding of these complexities.

We’re living in times where debate is rife across the world and rarely takes a moment to draw breath. Two of most topical debates are regarding the climate emergency and the Black Lives Matter movement, and they’re seen as two separate issues.

However, they’re very much linked. It’s well known that marginalized populations such as people of colour, the elderly, children, and lower-income groups are the first and hardest hit by climate-related pressures.

Photo by Chris Henry on Unsplash

Black communities, other communities of colour, and low-income populations are more likely to experience negative health impacts due to pollution and poor environmental health, and that in itself is Environmental Racism.

Well, the areas designated for industrial development including factories/energy plants — those most responsible for creating pollution harmful to human health — are built in or near these communities. Many of these people are statistically more likely to experience life-altering health and housing impacts from extreme weather.

This is especially true in the hurricane-prone coastal states where research shows that low-income communities are predominantly inhabited by people of colour. They’re less likely to afford home insurance that covers weather damage and have less ability to recover or move to other areas before the next weather event.

Indigenous communities in the South West, like the Navajo Nation, experience this form of institutional racism as well. Uncontrolled Uranium mining has led to severe health implications such as kidney failure and cancer. This was confirmed from research showing that the residents in these communities had significantly heightened levels of uranium in their system, equating to more than five times that of the average U.S. Citizen.

These are just two examples of how Black Americans and Indigenous communities are disproportionately impacted by reckless resource extraction and climate-related pressures. Deeply rooted institutions and historical events shaped this societal structure and allowed for this by creating segregated communities.

Figures for Covid-19 have further supported this claim, as the Navajo Nation surpassed New York State for having the highest infection rate in the U.S. Furthermore, Black Americans are dying at a rate three times greater than that of white Americans. Analysis of 3,080 counties in the United States conducted by Harvard University researchers found that higher levels of air pollution were associated with higher death rates from the disease.

It’s clear that any strategy or approach to combating the climate emergency must include system change to dramatically reduce inequity. Significant efforts must be made to ensure these communities are living in areas that are safe and without harmful implications for health. This means divesting away from the systems that rely on harmful industrial practices and investing in less toxic, renewable forms of energy.

‘Black Lives Matter’ is an emotionally charged topic to discuss and one that is very complex, intertwined with many other issues through deeply entrenched institutions and oppression. We’ll focus on the United States to illustrate this, as the country where George Floyd was killed.

From a criminal justice perspective, studies have shown that police in the U.S. are 3.5 times more likely to use force against a Black person than white people. Reverting back to the notion that low-income communities disproportionately include people of colour, systems such as cash bail have a greater impact on these communities.

You may be thinking we’re moving too far away from climate now, but we’re not. These issues are a result of the very inequalities that are also seen with climate-related pressures; it’s a deeply flawed system that breeds inequality across the board.

On a more global scale, almost 1 in 3 people currently don’t have access to clean or affordable energy. Pollution from burning wood for fuel kills more people than tuberculosis and malaria combined; and almost 700 million people don’t have access to freshwater. Even more people lack access to basic sanitation. The vast majority of people that make up these numbers are black.

In the UK where I’m from, the poorest neighbourhoods, similar to America, are in close proximity to industrial development. Academic research has shown that the greatest levels of air pollution are found in 20% of the poorest areas, also with a higher percentage of Black people.

There has also been a steep decline in Urban green spaces in the UK and according to Natural England, this most significantly impacts black communities. Black people are four times more likely than white people to have no access to outdoor space at home (e.g. a balcony or a garden).

The interlinked nature of climate, racial equality and economic equality illustrates the need for system-level change. We need to dig up those deeply entrenched institutions and rebuild around greater societal equity and environmental health. A well-developed understanding of the complexities of interlinked relationships and overlaps will allow us to begin that journey of change.

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Jamie McIlhatton

Written by

Sustainability Consultant and Owner of @sundastudio // Specialty Coffee Shop owner @wyldecoffee // Just trying to take my own advice...

Climate Conscious

Building a collective vision for a better tomorrow

Jamie McIlhatton

Written by

Sustainability Consultant and Owner of @sundastudio // Specialty Coffee Shop owner @wyldecoffee // Just trying to take my own advice...

Climate Conscious

Building a collective vision for a better tomorrow

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