The murder of George Floyd well over a week ago now has sent shockwaves across the USA and now parts of Europe. Protests have run for 8 days and nights straight across all 50 states in the USA and are now beginning to grow in number across cities in the UK and Europe. Communities have been pushed to a breaking point with the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmed Aubrey at the hands of the police in recent weeks, with no sign of backing down.
Rather than address the American protests, President Trump has taken the authoritarian steps of quashing any kind of protest, leading to widespread reports of violence by the police force against peaceful protestors as well as the media reporting on the protests. The use of teargas and riot police looks reminiscent of measures used at the beginning of the Syrian Civil War and even more recently in Hong Kong with the authoritarian Chinese State looking to assert influence over the former British colony. There are a number of police officers at various ranks supporting the peaceful protests and the cause, but there are still many who have no intention of de-escalating the situation.
Given the number of incidents that have been captured on camera in recent years, it should be very difficult to argue against the need for the widespread protests. The death of George Floyd, among too many others, has highlighted the systemic racism within the US police force. The protests that side of the pond have encouraged people to speak out against the racism that still exists within the UK and European police forces.
The existence of racism in modern-day American society doesn’t stop at the police force. There are a number of cases in America where majority-minority communities are disproportionately affected when it comes to environmental justice. It won’t get the spotlight in the same way the protests against systemic racism in the police force will, and rightfully so considering the brutality on display, but if we’re ever going to achieve any form of equality then it must be addressed.
Climate Change Doesn’t Discriminate
Of course, it’s not just in the USA where we must fight for environmental justice. At an international level, climate change is set to impact less developed countries on continents like Africa and Asia much more than countries that are more developed, like those in North America and Europe, despite the fact that a large majority of the emissions that exist in the atmosphere were produced by the richer, industrialised nations over the last 150 years.
That’s not to say that richer nations are not going to be severely affected by climate change; Miami and much of Florida is expected to be underwater, stronger storms will hammer the UK and western Europe, and Australia will have to deal with more frequent and extreme drought, bushfires, flooding, cyclones and flooding. But the cost of climate disaster related losses as a % of GDP is 4.3 times higher for less developed countries in comparison to those that are more developed.
A great number of small island nations could disappear with sea level rise, huge regions of India could become completely inhospitable due to high summer temperatures setting records at more than 50℃, areas of the Middle East could soon run completely dry with annual rainfall declining, expansion of the Sahara Desert with higher temperatures, south-east and eastern Asia being hit by stronger and more frequent typhoons with greater chances of flooding… I really could go on and on with how less developed countries around the world are set to be even worse off due to climate change despite having so little influence on the current climate emergency.
Racism and the Environment
Now, back to the USA.
If you’ve ever seen the movie Dark Waters featuring Mark Ruffalo as attorney Robert Billot, who took on a case against chemical manufacturing giant DuPont, first when they was poisoning the farm of Wilbur Tennant, only to later find that they were poisoning the entire community. The chemical PFOA had leaked into water sources used by Parkersburg, West Virginia, and was linked to widespread cases of cancers and diseases from the tens of thousands of people that lived in the town.
The story of Billot and Parkersburg in West Virginia was in a typically white community, but similar stories have occurred in black communities all across the USA. The Flint water crisis in a majority-black neighbourhood and ‘cancer alley’ in Louisiana consists of a number of majority-black communities. Even communities around Detroit and the Bronx in New York are worse-affected by pollution compared to majority-white communities.
‘Cancer alley’ is unsurprisingly named because of the high number of deaths due to cancer. The 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi River in Louisiana is home to a huge number of plastic and petrochemical plants that have easy access to the oil-rich Gulf of Mexico. An article from the end of last year looked into the town of St. Gabriel that is surrounded by petrochemical plants – 30 within ten miles and 13 within just three miles. There are still no official studies linking the high rate of cancer to the close location of many highly pollutant industries, but it’s no coincidence that people living nearby have much greater chance of developing cancer than the average American.
Another huge social and environmental crises in the USA is happening in a majority-black community. The Flint water crisis has been going on for years after an emergency city manager changed the source of drinking water from the . The finding of dangerous bacteria in the new water supply led to the dumping of chlorine to kill it off. However, this then caused the old lead pipes to rust and poison the water supply further.
The slow response, and the fact that it is still going on to this day, has been criticised from all sides. Many believe that if a similar crisis had occurred in a community that wasn’t majority-minority it would have been solved a lot sooner…
Fighting for Environmental Justice
The fight for environmental justice dates back to the days of Martin Luther King and has remained a major problem in the decades since. Without environmental justice, there will always be an element of oppression against minorities. It’s also why those campaigning for action on climate change should absolutely be supporting the protests against police brutality against minorities – in the same way climate change covers a whole spectrum of issues, so does racial equality (including climate change!)
Tackling climate change and ensuring climate justice at all levels is an immense challenge that requires global co-operation – even when looking at the local community level. At the global level, each of us must do what we can to tackle the climate emergency and limit the rise in global average temperatures to 1.5℃. Even as many developing countries like Brazil, India and China industrialise rapidly and increase their emissions, they are still dwarfed by those produced by those in Canada, the USA and much of Europe.
At the local community level, nations should be looking to address the inequality divide within their borders. Countries that have much lower rates of inequality across its population are shown to cause less damage to the environment and are likely to be more responsive to more environmentally-friendly policy.
To those that are peacefully protesting on the streets of America, you have the absolute support of people all over the world. Fighting racial injustices all over the world is vitally important and environmental justice is just one aspect that must be addressed.
4 thoughts on “Racism and Environmental Justice”
Interesting read. In the UK, Black people are less likely to be out in nature (due to living in poorer areas, with no public transport links). Arguably, this has been said to put them at a disadvantage – as natural spaces help with mental and physical health.
Thank you. That is very true, and it is very unfortunate given the benefits of being in natural areas!
I’m glad to see so many environmental bloggers using this moment to highlight the injustices that exist in our realm. Thanks for doing the research and posting a well-written blog post. I agree with what you said about Flint and how these situations are not addressed as quickly when they occur in people-of-color communities. Love Canal in Buffalo, NY is an instance where public outcry of toxins in a white neighborhood lead to action on the federal level to remove people at risk and begin clean-up. There are many other “Flint Michigans” that we don’t hear about. Keep up your good work!
There is still so much racial injustice in many aspects of society unfortunately and the environment is just one that often gets overlooked. Thank you very much for your kind words! I’ll have to research into Love Canal in Buffalo for a comparison in federal responses.
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