Let’s talk about environmental justice – particularly in light of climate change. I first learned of the concept of environmental justice when I was an undergrad in the 1990s at the UW Nelson Institute. At that point, environmental injustices were related primarily to the unequal distribution of pollution, toxic waste, and pesticides. The discussion focused on how people of particular races, classes, and geographic locations – whether by design or lack of design – are more profoundly impacted by the effects of environmental degradation than white middle- and upper-class people and communities.
The EPA notes that the 1960s Civil Rights movement acted as a catalyst for the environmental justice (EJ) movement. People of color and other grassroots activists began to speak up about health and safety discrepancies caused by environmental pollutants. They were moved to protest in 1968 during the Memphis Sanitation Strike, and pushed for legislative action following injustices like toxic waste disposal in New York’s Love Canal, and North Carolina’s Warren County.
Today, while many of these same inequitable polluting acts still take place (for example, in “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana), there’s an additional environmental degradation to take into account: climate change. With rising sea levels and melting permafrost it is again most often people of color and lower socio-economic status who inequitably suffer.
“When we think of climate change—or the way climate change has historically been framed—it looks at the science, and it looks at how changing climate and the conditions related to that might impact us as a global species, and impact trees, forests, wildlife, et cetera. What that framing doesn’t do very well, or at all, is take into consideration disproportionality. Changing climate is affecting humanity, but it affects people differently.”
An example some may be familiar with: in 2019 National Geographic featured the story of Newtok, Alaska – which is about 500 miles due west of Anchorage. Newtok was established in 1949 when the Bureau of Indian Affairs selected a site near the Bering Sea for the nomadic Yup’ik people to settle.
Today, as with much of the arctic landscape, the permafrost on which the town was built is melting due to climate change. As a result, the village of Newtok – roads, pipelines, building foundations, and peoples homes – are sinking into the ground or eroding down the river banks. The entire town was forced to relocate. They have become climate refugees, what the UN calls “persons displaced in the context of disasters and climate change.”
While the UN acknowledges that climate-related “disasters have diverse consequences for States and societies, as well as the well-being and enjoyment of rights by individuals,” this legal definition has not yet been ratified. And without an internationally recognized definition, a “protection gap” exists for people and communities who are impacted by climate change.
So, what is to be done? The below video from the Natural Resource Defense Council offers some thoughts. More grassroots action, more legislative and legal changes, and perhaps… environmental education.
Image credits: Memphis: Memphis Public Library & Information Center; Warren County: Greg Gibson, AP; Newtok: Travis S., Flickr
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