Environmental Justice – Climate Change and Racism

  • Photo Cara Turton-Chambers (BA, MSc, GradIEMA)
  • Cara Turton-Chambers (BA, MSc, GradIEMA)

Progress journey

The Energy and Environment Department stands in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. This article is a starting point for understanding the links between environmental issues and racism, and why calls to end climate change (and other environmental issues) should come with calls to end racism.

Black, indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) are the least responsible for environmental harm, especially climate change, on a global scale. Whilst China may be currently be the largest polluter, for decades the majority of pollution came from Europe and North America cumulatively these regions are the biggest contributors. One of the principles of environmentalism is that the polluter pays. By this logic, the brunt of the cost of climate change should be born by Europe and North America. This is not the case.

Environmental harm is more severe for BIPOC at a global scale. In the UK, climate change
is largely a problem for the future. In the Global South, the consequences are happening
now. Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, is considered to be one of the worst affected areas,
being especially susceptible to drought and heat stress. This is related to geography, the
UK’s temperate climate and location away from key storm tracts, means climate change
will not have significant consequences for many years. It is also related to the complex
social explanations for the distribution of wealth and the ability to influence change across
the region and indeed the world.

Environmental harm often is more severe for BIPOC on a local scale. This manifests in the
tendency for toxic facilities to be located near majority Black communities, London’s Black
communities are disproportionately exposed to air pollution
and race is the biggest
indicator in the US of whether you live near toxic waste
. It is present in findings that a
higher percentage of BME people live in areas of greatest deficiency of access to open
green spaces with wildlife value
. And the decision to move the Dakota Access Pipeline
away from the majority white town of Bismarck following complaints, yet continue to pass
through the Standing Rock Sioux tribe land, putting sacred sites and water at risk.

The Environmental Movement is not without fault when it comes to racial justice. Here
are a couple of examples to demonstrate this:

Indigenous communities have been evicted from native lands to make way for
protected areas across the world, usually leading to a loss of cultural knowledge and a
substantial reduction in quality of life. The removal of indigenous groups is based on a
myth of blaming these groups for environmental damage, rather than recognising the
wider causes of environmental harm

• Much of the lobbying in the environmental sector has focused on 2 degrees as a
critical threshold, beyond which catastrophic climate change will occur. For the UK,
and most other largely white Western countries, this threshold is safe. For vulnerable
and low lying islands, 2 degrees of warming would be devastating. For many years,
these communities have been saying “1.5 to stay alive”. Limiting warming to 1.5
degrees is the only way for these communities to live safely
, but this was only
recognised by much of the environmental movement recently.

In short, this means that environmental issues are intersectional problems, they are
related to multiple forms of discrimination in society including race, as discussed, but also
relating to gender or sexuality for example.

So, what does this mean for environmental work at the Trust? Good question. Well, you
might have already noticed some links to justice in our work to date, such as linking the
Green Impact objectives to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and we try
hard to make sure the organisations we promote align with our values. As a team we are
going to be more active in relation to environmental justice and plan to include more
articles like this one to inform both ourselves and our champions.

Sustainability is about the environment, but it is also about economy and society, so as we
work towards sustainable healthcare, all these factors must be considered.

There are lots of links in this article but here are a couple more…

The Trust’s statement on Black lives Matter

Climate Justice Webinar – from a medical perspective in Canada