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Intersectional Environmentalism: How Climate Change is an Environmental Justice issue

Intersectional Environmentalism: How Climate Change is an Environmental Justice issue

Climate change disproportionately affects those who suffer from socioeconomic inequalities, such as people of colour and Indigenous communities.


What is environmental justice? 

Environmental justice refers to the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of race, colour, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.  

“Fair treatment” in the above definition refers to the idea that no one suffers a disproportionate share of environmental consequences from any industry or operation. 

environmental justice

Is environmental justice a new concept? 

Despite only being popularized recently, sociologist and environmental activist Robert Bullard has spent over 40 years researching and creating awareness on how indigenous communities, people of color and  ethnic minorities suffer a disproportionate impact on any environmental issues. 

The movement

Research on environmental justice began in the late 70’s after residents of a Black neighborhood in Houston realized the state was going to allow the construction of a solid-waste facility in their community. After some research, Bullard found out that 80% of the city’s waste and its sites were situated in Black neighbourhoods despite only 25% of the population in Houston being white. This was the first of many similar discoveries along the years. 

According to Dorceta Taylor, an environmental justice expert at Yale, a movement started to emerge. In 1991, over a thousand activists attended a conference in Washington DC where the first “Principles of Environmental Justice” (still used today by many environmental justice groups) were drafted. 

Why does Environmental racism exist? 

There are many reasons behind it. To fully understand it, we need to first look into systemic racism. 

Systemic racism refers to “policies and practices that exist throughout a whole society or organization, and that result in and support a continued unfair advantage to some people an unfair or harmful treatment of others based on race.” We can find evidence of it in every level of society; education, criminal justice, employment, wealth, benefits and housing, surveillance, healthcare, …

Environmental racism occurs for many reasons, both intentional and unintentional but also unequal enforcement of laws and the lack of Black and other minority groups in the decision-making process. In order to achieve environmental justice, all of these issues must be addressed. 

What is social justice? 

According to the UN, social justice can be understood as the fair and compassionate distribution of the fruits and economic growth

Justice for the environment and for people are two challenging conversations that are happening simultaneously in many tables around the world. However, in most cases those conversations happen separately. Many miss the interconnectedness of human life and Planet Earth. 

The planet is experiencing significant changes due to climate change and its effects are tangible across the globe. A UN report on climate change stated that “people who are socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally or otherwise marginalised” will suffer the most as the effects of climate change continue to develop. 

A Human impact report, published by the Global Humanitarian Forum in 2009 said that 300, 000 people per year are already dying from climate change related issues and over 4 billion are suffering the consequences of drought, floods, desertification, loss of biodiversity, etc.  

How are minorities disproportionately affected?

In the US specifically, slavery is a precursor to more recent discriminatory policies and socioeconomic inequalities There are numerous factors determined by race rather than equal opportunities, including income level, health status, and education access. This historical discrimination in housing, education, employment and other areas mentioned above in this article played a role in the manifestation of these inequalities. 

African Americans make up for 13% of the US population, however 68% live in a 30-mile radius from a coal-fired plant compared to a 56% of whites which leads to a higher risk of health issues, from heart attacks to birth defects.

In conclusion, it’s clear that environmental justice can’t exist without social justice and vice versa. We must, individually and as governments and organisations, acknowledge its intersectionality and create policies and initiatives to solve these issues as a whole, rather than individually. 

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