Earth & Environment

September 24, 2020: The Racist Underbelly of Climate Change

Posted on September 24, 2020 at 12:00 AM

Most Americans seem to “get it,” that climate change is for real. At the time of this writing, wildfires rage across the West Coast and a very wet hurricane is moving toward the Gulf states. A news bulletin reports that a significant part of Greenland’s ice field is crumbling into the sea, at a rate matching scientists’ worst projections. Since climate-driven disasters cut across racial and economic lines, a closer look is needed to see the injustice that is an inherent part of this Crisis.

The Washington Post (September 11, 2020) carried a front-page story about a Latino community in Oregon destroyed, with no warning, by a fast-moving wildfire. This was a community of many trailer and RV parks, and small businesses. Most of it is now ashes. In Washington, DC, a recent downpour caused flooding in many homes in one of the majority-Black parts of the city: and the flooding isn’t just water, it’s raw sewage. Climate-driven disasters have a heavier impact on communities of color in this country, because of their more vulnerable locations, fewer economic resources to begin with, and higher rates of preexisting health conditions like asthma and cardiovascular disease. They are also often the last to get adequate disaster assistance. Who is more likely to have good insurance, decent bank accounts, easy access to food sources, access to rebuilding loans, and affordable medical care?  Usually majority-White communities.

Racism underlies so much of how our country addresses problems, and it is now clear that it underlies the unequal impacts of the climate emergency. It is also true of how climate disasters are driving human misery in the world as a whole, since the countries now suffering the most from drought, flooding, and heat waves are countries with majority populations of people of color, what 45 infamously called “s—t-hole” countries. Armed conflicts in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa are exacerbated by migrations of people from drought-stricken regions. Soon will come migrations of people whose lands are disappearing as the sea level is rising. Simultaneously, richer, Whiter countries in Europe and here in America see political capital in rejecting immigrants.

Although humanity as a whole bears heavy responsibility for the drastic increases in greenhouse gases (GHGs) that are driving the climate emergency, it is the  prosperous, majority-White nations that have been the major contributors of GHGs since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Giant fossil-fuel corporations, and those of us benefiting the most from GHG-producing energy, have contributed the most to global warming, while lower-income communities have suffered the worst impacts.

Under this administration, the US has abandoned its traditional role of global leadership in addressing crises. The federal government has abandoned lower-income communities to whatever help cash-strapped state and local governments can provide. This is systemic racism, here all along, but made significantly worse since 2017.

Hope is on the horizon: a new and broad recognition across racial lines that racism is rooted in our national life, and all of us need to join together to eradicate it. Finally, a wide and deep conversation is beginning on the sources of racism, along with a new willingness of many White people to learn about the extra burdens imposed by our economic, political, and cultural system on people of color, and new energy among White people to join the struggle against racism. American environmental groups, embarrassingly mostly White, are waking up to a sad history of racial discrimination and are working to end it.

A wide coalition of people of all races is beginning to bond together to address the twin catastrophes looming over the continued existence of the human race: the climate emergency and the racism crisis. With the 2020 election around the corner, we can all change our country back to being a world environmental leader, and move forward into becoming an antiracist country. The first thing we must all do is VOTE! Vote like our lives depend on it, because they do.

— Written by Jean Steward, Chair of the Earth and Environment Task Force

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