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Climate change is also a racial justice problem

(Michael Parkin for the Washington Post) (Michael Parkin for the Washington Post)
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What does racism mean for climate change — and vice versa?

— Sarah Kaplan, Post climate reporter

Normally, I use this column to respond to questions from readers about climate change. But — amid our ongoing national reckoning with racism prompted by the unequal impacts of the covid-19 pandemic, the recent killings of African Americans at the hands of police, and 400 years of history — this was the question on my mind.

If humanity is going to effectively tackle climate change, scientists and activists told me, it’s a question we have to answer. You can’t build a just and equitable society on a planet that’s been destabilized by human activities, they argue. Nor can you stop the world from warming without the experience and the expertise of those most affected by it.

Racism is “inexorably” linked to climate change, said Penn State meteorologist Gregory Jenkins, because it dictates who benefits from activities that produce planet-warming gases and who suffers most from the consequences.

One study published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences found that black and Hispanic communities in the U.S. are exposed to far more air pollution than they produce through actions like driving and using electricity. By contrast, white Americans experience better air quality than the national average, even though their activities are the source of most pollutants. Another paper in the journal Science found that climate change will cause the most economic harm in the nation’s poorest counties; many of those places, like Zavala County, Tex., and Wilkinson County, Miss., are home to mostly people of color.

In a course he teaches called “Climate Change, Climate Justice and Front Line Communities,” Jenkins traces this connection from slavery, which created the economic foundation for the industrial revolution, to modern-day policies that influence where people live and environmental risks to which they are exposed. Studies show that coastal communities in the South, where African Americans are a significant fraction of the population, are at the greatest risk from sea level rise. Other research has found that neighborhoods once shaped by discriminatory housing policies known as “redlining” have more pavement, fewer trees and higher average temperatures — a combination that can lead to deadly heat illness.

Racial inequality also means that the people most at risk from climate change have the fewest resources to cope. According to a study by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, more than 30 percent of black New Orleans residents didn’t own cars when Hurricane Katrina hit — making it almost impossible for them to evacuate. After the storm, the city’s black population fell because many residents couldn’t afford to return.

“Unless inequity is addressed now,” Jenkins said, “future impacts from climate change will disable many communities of color.”

For Corina Newsome, a wildlife conservationist and climate activist at Georgia Southern University, the link between environmental issues and racial injustice is personal. Last year, the Philadelphia neighborhood where her family lives was rocked by an oil refinery explosion that discharged thousands of pounds of dangerous hydrofluoric acid into the atmosphere. In coastal Georgia, where she works, she witnessed how black communities are hardest hit by flooding, and how people who can’t afford air conditioning suffer the most in heat waves.

“These same exploits that are causing climate change on a massive scale … are causing very immediate health problems in areas inhabited by black and brown people,” Newsome said. “You can’t afford to not care about it when you’re part of these marginalized communities.”

But she draws hope from the ways hard-hit communities are combating the problem, like the Savannah-based nonprofit Harambee House, which provides green job trainings and environmental health workshops in black neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, kids of color are spearheading America’s youth climate movement. A Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll in 2019 found that at least twice as many black and Hispanic teens participated in school walkouts on climate change than their white counterparts; they were also more likely to say people need to take action in the next year or two.

“Climate change is the most immediate threat for the marginalized people of this country and of the world,” Newsome said. “But that also means we are the most quick to act.”

The world of climate activism has historically been dominated by white men, said Dorceta Taylor, an environmental sociologist at the University of Michigan who studies the history of the environmental movement. A 2014 study by the Green Diversity Initiative found that people of color made up about 12 percent of staff members and leadership at nongovernmental environmental organizations and foundations.

But those numbers are shifting. And with more diversity has come an increased focus on issues of environmental justice — something that has strengthened the movement by bringing “a kind of moral outrage to the conversation,” Taylor said.

“Seeing the incredible disproportionate impacts, the flooding, the heat,” she continued, “young people are saying, ‘That is wrong. We have to do something about it.’”

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