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Kate Zerrenner headshot

Taking on Racism? Don’t Overlook Climate Justice

On World Environment Day, a reminder that the social change millions of U.S. citizens are seeking right now is inextricably linked with climate justice.
By Kate Zerrenner
Climate Justice

(Photo: a young visitor poses at Joshua Tree National Park, located in southern California’s Mojave Desert)

People are angry and scared right now, from the pandemic to police brutality to climate change. Every day brings another story of prejudice or abuse, of people dying and small businesses failing. Justice is the word on everybody’s lips. But what does that mean? And how can those of us in the environmental space participate in the conversation? The simple answer is that the social change millions of people are seeking right now is inextricably linked with climate justice.

As Dr. Adrienne Hollis, senior climate justice and health scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told me, COVID-19 — on top of climate change, on top of poor air and water quality — means vulnerable communities are living through a syndemic, a situation in which multiple, interrelated epidemics are happening at the same time and exacerbating each other.

The background of why climate justice has been denied to people of color

African Americans are significantly more concerned about climate change than whites (57 percent to 49 percent), and with good reason. Communities of color are disproportionately affected by poor air and water quality and other impacts of climate change. This situation makes the people living in these communities more vulnerable to complications and death from COVID-19, witnessed by the numbers: Nearly twice as many deaths than would be expected based on the percentage of the national population.

It is an often repeated misconception that African Americans do not care about the outdoors or want to be in wild places. There are two things at play here: One, African Americans, especially in the South, have a long, deep connection to land. The ability to own land after the abolition of slavery was a point of freedom. Formerly enslaved people who owned land did marginally better overall economically, but institutional racism kept firm limits on their ability to prosper.

Second, the problem is not one of dislike or unwillingness to partake in the outdoors, but access. National parks in the U.S. were designed to be white, to help escape the urban — read: minority — situation, and African Americans still only make up around 1 percent of their visitors annually. The reasons they often cite for not visiting these parks include affordability and access, historical trauma, fear for personal safety, and discrimination. City pools and public beaches were segregated in most places, leaving a legacy of separateness — as in, separate but never equal.

There still remains a separateness in the open spaces of the outdoors. After a white woman called the police on avid birdwatcher Christian Cooper in New York's Central Park, the Twitter account @BlackAFinSTEM launched #BlackBirdersWeek to highlight African American birders and scientists. Here is where the end of the circle meets its beginning: In order to solve climate justice problems, we need the scientists and engineers who both understand the technical issues and the communities they affect. Yet African Americans make up only 9 percent of science and engineering jobs in the U.S. And those in their ranks often report prejudice and bias up and down their careers, no matter how accomplished they are.

As Dr. Hollis points out, kids need exposure to leaders in the fields of science and law who look like them, and they also need access to education and funding to back it up.

Solving climate justice requires multi-layered solutions

In a discussion between Dr. Hollis and Dr. Sacoby Wilson from the University of Maryland, Dr. Wilson pointed out that “the COVID pandemic has made what was invisible visible.”

“Now we see that we need to protect frontline healthcare workers and vulnerable communities," Dr. Hollis added. "Systemic racism has put people at risk, and we have reached a teachable moment, a moment where we must address the issue head on. If we address the heart of the justice issue, we address climate injustice and all the rest. You cannot separate them.”

She notes that solutions must begin at the community level. “Look through a small lens to start and then widen the scope,” she said. The message is not the only important thing, but also the messenger. There is trust built in if you look to the community, she noted. Businesses and community leaders must work together to find the solutions for what works best because there is no one-size fits all solution, though businesses, government, community leaders, and academia can learn from each other. What works in Houston may not work in St. Louis, but they can share and work to rebuild the institutions to better serve everybody.

As Mustafa Ali of the National Wildlife Federation, who previously worked within the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President Barack Obama, has said, communities need to be empowered to “move beyond surviving to thriving.”

“We’re all in this together” doesn’t mean everybody is in the same boat or has the same experiences. It means we are human beings on the only planet we have, and we all have a stake in protecting the vulnerable, lifting up the marginalized, and being accountable and responsible to our fellow human beings. As Cornel West, American philosopher and author, has said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” Justice for the people suffering most in this syndemic will require everyone to solve it, most especially those who have not yet been given a chance.

Image credit: Samantha Sophia/Unsplash

Kate Zerrenner headshot

Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.

Read more stories by Kate Zerrenner