by Nemsie Gonzalez

Once we understand that science is historically situated, we can begin to move into understanding how cultural implications impact the way “science” impacts different groups of people. One of the biggest examples of this is climate change and more specifically, environmental racism. The World Economic Forum defines environmental racism as one of the many forms of systemic racism, in which communities of color experience the blunt of environmental hazards. Often this occurs due to the history of racism and redlining in a country, or other policies that push people of color to live in close proximity with toxic waste sites. In 1983, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) performed a study that found three out of every four landfills are near communities populated by racial minorities. In 1987, the United Church of Christ (UCC) commission for Racial Justice found “race as the most significant factor in determining the location of waste facilities.” The studies were later reaffirmed in 2007 by the “Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty” study done by the UCC, which identified that “race continues to be an independent predictor of where hazardous wastes are located.”

Even the United Nations has acknowledged the importance of addressing systemic racism in the fight against climate change, with the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) issuing a statement on the subject. The history of colonialism worldwide has left us with “global ‘sacrifice zones’ – regions rendered dangerous and even uninhabitable due to environmental degradation – are in effect, ‘racial and ethnic sacrifice zones’,” reported a UN expert via the OHCHR. Worldwide, this looks like large Western nations shipping their e-waste and other trash to countries like Kenya, Hong Kong, Mexico or Pakistan. Or developing nations being forced to deal with the consequences of climate change; like rising sea levels, extreme drought or extreme flooding while developed nations who produce the majority of CO2 are not as affected. In the U.S., environmental injustice often takes the form of poor responses to environmental disasters in communities of color or poor crisis management from governmental organizations. Some of the most notable examples in the U.S. being the Flint water crisis or Hurricane Katrina. The National Law Journal Study of 1992 found that there are 500% higher penalties given to polluters found in white communities. This phenomenon is still seen today when we see how long it took government officials to take the situation in Flint seriously or prosecute those responsible for neglecting the safety of citizens in the area. A similar situation was found in Los Angeles in 2015 where the primarily white and affluent neighborhood of Porter Ranch experienced the worst reported methane leak in U.S. history. The methane leak immediately led to a state of emergency with 4,000 homes evacuated. Meanwhile in Jefferson Park, south Los Angeles, an AllenCo oil drilling site was located near a population that was over 90% African American or Latinx and the community received little support. Community members filed over 200 complaints from 2010-2013 to the South Coast Air Quality Management but only 15 citations were filed by the agency against AllenCo. Additionally, the site only closed after Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials investigating the site became ill in 2013. This is another example of how environmental racism plays a role in our day to day life.

However, hope is not lost! Looking across the United States we see how many organizations are beginning to take steps forward in combating the disproportionate effects climate disasters have on the working class and other marginalized communities by promoting environmental justice. Robert Bullard, the ‘father of environmental justice,’ a champion in his field, has begun to provide us with the framework needed to address these issues. Environmental justice for Bullard “is the principle that all people are entitled to equal environmental protection regardless of race, color or national origin. It’s the right to live and work and play in a clean environment.” Even the EPA has begun to set definitions and expectations for different industries encouraging the “meaningful involvement of all people” in the development, implementation and enforcement of different environmental policies and practices, as well as promoting their fair treatment. Environmental activists are also beginning to move towards incorporating intersectionality in their movements, and environmental educators are putting environmental justice into their curriculums. 

The more we continue to identify the issue and place public pressure on our local and federal officials, the more work we can get done. We are key stakeholders and have as much power as we decide. It is our responsibility to one another and our environment to continue pushing for environmental justice.