My Voice:The Social Justice Issue and Climate Change

Katie S. | Wyomissing Jr./Sr. High School | Grade 12

The United States makes up around 5% of the global population. Yet because of our extravagant lifestyles and lack of consideration for a planet that has outlived our very existence, America has consumed 17% of the world’s total energy. On a planet that has blessed us with ecological diversity and natural resources without cost, we continue to take from it, quickening the rate of global climate change, raising our sea levels, poaching our animals, destroying our ecosystems. Warming temperatures are resulting in increasingly destructive natural disasters, and coal power plants are making it harder for urban residents to breathe the air around them when it is filled of toxic contaminants.

To further exacerbate the lives of humans who have contracted respiratory diseases and lung cancer from polluted air, Covid-19 struck America in early 2020, a few months before an unarmed black man called George Floyd was murdered on the streets by a white police officer. Subsequently throughout this year, our news channels have been flooded with the same two topics: the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter Movement. Quarantined in our homes, unable to look away from our screens, we were forced to deeply examine and criticize the state of our nation, acknowledging its racist roots while collectively mourning the victims plagued with the airborne disease of Covid-19. While absorbing these significant events separately, what most of us failed to recognize was the inadvertent overlap: the fact that environmental conditions and racial tensions are inextricably intertwined. And for as many times as it has been used to describe this past year, unprecedented is not even the right word, for the interconnectedness of race and place is not something new.

If you are puzzled by how the two interrelate, let us first define some unfamiliar concepts. Environmental racism, a branch of racism referring to the inequitable access to healthy environmental conditions, resources, protection, and decision-making, was coined in 1982 but has been practiced since the discovery of the New World. When European colonizers arrived in the Western Hemisphere, they stole land from the indigenous people for the exploitation of natural resources and created a social ladder based on race to coerce the natives into hard labor. As America transitioned from African chattel slavery to sharecropping, essentially a continuation of slavery with a different name, free men remained near their former slave plantations on account of debt and poverty. Through industrialization led by affluent white male developers with power, nearby plantations would be replaced by petrochemical plants without the consent of black residents. This transition would lead to the creation of sacrifice zones, areas experiencing worse environmental conditions due to nearby fossil-fuel emitting industries. And of course, these zones remain predominantly inhabited by low-income residents and people of color.

In the 1930’s, the federal government introduced the practice of redlining, deeming some neighborhoods as riskier than others and thus denying their financial services to black and brown residents. Redlined neighborhoods would soon be crowded with nearby highways, factories, and power plants, creating disproportionately high levels of pollution compared to predominantly white neighborhoods. Overtime, these racist housing and development practices have created a society where neighborhoods are segregated by race and income. Where middle-income black Americans are more likely to live among low-income, highly polluted areas than low-income white Americans. Where black Americans breathe 56% more pollution than they produce while white Americans breathe 17% less pollution than they produce. The one million black Americans living within a half mile of a natural gas facility and 68% of black Americans living within 30 miles of a coal plant face a higher risk of suffering from birth defects and heart attacks. During natural disasters like floods and droughts or other forms of manmade environmental degradation, already-vulnerable Black and Latino communities are hit the hardest due to lacking the adequate infrastructure and insurance to recover. The geographical location of American residents is not a coincidence but has been meticulously plotted out by developers and sustained through law to ensure that the hierarchy continues. To keep black and brown people at the bottom and then proceed to pull the stairs out from under them.

So how is Covid-19 related to environmental racism? Well typically, Covid-19 cases are more severe among humans with underlying medical conditions such as heart or respiratory diseases, and we know that heart and respiratory diseases are contracted from exposure to polluted air. This is why black and brown communities are experiencing the deadliest of Covid cases: worse air quality equals higher severity of Covid cases. If black communities are redlined, swimming in poverty, being suffocated not only viciously on the streets but gradually by the air they breathe, how can we expect them to bounce back from a global pandemic without sufficient healthcare and insurance? How can we expect them to care about climate change when their world is crumbling around them?

America has a long precedent history of stealing from our people of color. Stealing the land from the indigenous people who found it, stealing the freedom from those who built our economy with their labors, stealing the lives from black families, black neighbors, black leaders who fought in our wars and marched and died for not just their humanity but for everyone’s. Not just their more perfect union, but all of ours. We have created a widening idea of “us versus them,” deeming their neighborhoods untouchable, moving them into impoverished and vulnerable conditions, and then we have the audacity to ask “what about my life?” Solutions such as creating community flood protection and restructuring land usage will not be executed without giving black Americans the opportunity to hold leadership positions in their local city councils and environmental organizations, granting them a say in whether the next oil refinery or coal power plant is placed beside their home. We must change laws that deregulate petrochemical facilities and encourage pollution, because just like equity, clean air will not just benefit black and brown communities, but all of us. As a developed country, America has the responsibility to cut down on usage and pollution to give less developed, preindustrial countries the room to contribute to our global ecological footprint, for anything less than this is selfish.

It is inconceivable for us to discuss climate change without racial justice, for it is quite literally impossible to create racial justice when there is no longer a planet to which humans can exist. As a nation of great diversity, intelligence, and resilience, we must do better in our homes, on the streets, in the voting booths because we are hurting the people who are already suffering the most. For so long, our black and brown communities have struggled for air, and we have either cut off their oxygen tubes or worse, watched. So today, let our conjoined efforts equal a single breath. And hope that tomorrow, relief will come.