“Environmental racism” was a term coined by Benjamin Chavis, the previous executive director of the United Church of Christ (UCC) Commission for Racial Justice when he was addressing the dumping of hazardous PCB waste in Warren County, North Carolina. This is how he defined environmental racism:
“…racial discrimination in environmental policy making, the enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of communities of colour for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities, and the history of excluding people of colour from leadership of the ecology movements.”
Environmental racism and climate change can be traced all the way back to the Industrial Revolution. Studies have shown that in some regions, climate change began as early as in the 1830s.
Not only did the mass consumption of coal contribute to the very first emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the Industrial Revolution created the idea of the “developed” country (with countries that have gone through an industrial revolution becoming “developed” and those that have not become “developing” countries). Starting with the U.K., the Industrial Revolution became a competition of who could create the most time efficient, technologically advanced machines.
It truly speaks volumes that even now, studies show that some of the heat-trapping gasses in the atmosphere today date back to the Industrial Revolution.
Global North v. Global South
This leads to the issue of the contemporary disparities between the “global north” and the “global south”. In short, the nations in the “global north,” which underwent their respective industrial revolutions earlier on in history, now have the capacity to champion for sustainability and environmental protection movements. These wealthy nations also have the capacity to protect themselves from catastrophic damage resulting from environmental racism and climate change, such as droughts, famine, and inaccessibility to clean water and air. Meanwhile, in the “global south,” where some nations still largely rely on agricultural exports to support their economies, the impact of environmental racism and climate change is crippling.
That being said, there are those who argue that all nations should pull their weight to combat environmental racism and climate change, mostly in terms of money. They especially target countries like China, India, and other nations in the global south who are currently struggling with juggling sustainability with opportunities to finally achieve economic growth after decades of oppression and colonialism.
However, it should be noted that the United States is still, by far, the country with the largest cumulative CO2 emissions since 1750. The worst greenhouse gas emitters of all time are still not the most populous countries. Instead, most of the chart toppers are still the largest economic powers. It’s also important to note that the carbon emissions in developing countries are also partly caused by the outsourcing of mechanical labor from developed nations.
Impact of Environmental Racism
This system of oppression not only impacts environmental policymakers and international diplomacy, but also individual lives on the ground. To put it simply, environmental racism and climate change does not affect all of us equally. More specifically, from droughts to famine to sweltering heat waves, environmental racism and climate change hits the most vulnerable populations in the global south the most.
For example, droughts have affected more than 1 billion people in the last decade, hitting people in developing countries the hardest. This is because three out of four people living in poverty worldwide rely on agriculture and natural resources to survive, meaning that environmental racism affects those who are already the most at risk. Moreover, from being able to temporarily relocate to avoid wildfires to more far-fetched ideas like colonising Mars after the earth becomes inhabitable, those who are living in wealthy nations can afford to cope with and perhaps even escape the realities of climate change.
Let’s face the truth, these are privileges that many do not have.
Disparities Within “Developed” Nations
The racial oppression of climate change is not just limited to big-picture disparities between the global north and south. In fact, the term “environmental racism” was originally coined as a reaction to environmental policies within the U.S. that negatively impacted marginalised and vulnerable communities. Even in the developed nations, race is unfortunately a significant indicator of whether you have access to clean water and air.
According to statistics, African Americans in the United States are more likely to live near landfills and industrial plants that pollute water and air and erode quality of life. Because of this, more than half of the 9 million people living near hazardous waste sites are people of colour, and black Americans are three times more likely to die from exposure to air pollutants than their white counterparts.
Take for example, “Cancer Alley” in the state of Louisiana in the United States. Between the cities of Baton Rouge and New Orleans there is an 85-mile stretch of land that is houses more than 150 plants and refineries. This land is also dotted with little clusters of poor, predominantly black communities, all of which are located a stone’s throw away from these plants. Because they are constantly being exposed to toxic pollutants from these plants, these communities suffer from a disproportionate number of cases of cancer, lung disease, and a high mortality rate from these diseases. Community members also suffer from lack of non-contaminated water, sheets of grime constantly covering their cars and houses, and unnatural stenches that waft over from the plants on a daily basis. This is precisely what Benjamin Chavis meant when he coined the term “environmental racism.”
Climate change is real, but it’s a lot more real for some than others, and that is not okay. We need to address this issue of environmental racism immediately.
As Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez once tweeted, “Environmental justice isn’t only about climate change – it’s also about just quality of air, of water, of food. We can honour frontline communities, create a ton of good jobs, stem climate change, & fix our infrastructure.”