Environmental Racism: How Climate Change Impacts More Than Temperature

Rachel Lark - December 2, 2023

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The climate crisis is a global issue unlike any other. It is so unique because it synergizes with almost every other global concern. World hunger increases, inequality deepens, and water scarcity worsens because of poor environmental conditions. Knowing this foundation will aid in parsing environmental racism, an issue related to specific communities but a concern that all should be willing to help alleviate.

What Is Environmental Racism?

Ecological or environmental racism, also known as ecological apartheid, describes how climate change impacts minority groups, Indigenous people, less-developed and poorer countries, and communities of color disproportionately. Harmful activities carried out by megacorporations are one of the leading causes of this injustice. 

Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. coined the phrase, noting the four major causes:

  • How expensive land is
  • Minimal or nonexistent political influence
  • Lack of mobility
  • Poverty

However, the most significant party to blame is systemic racism. The term came into being because politicians, governments, and systems have historically and currently given preferential treatment to white, wealthier communities and dismissed people outside of these categories. 

These attitudes require the world to create an institution that justly governs environmental activities while promoting anti-discrimination tenants. Without progress on this ideal, environmental racism grows worse daily. 

What Are Examples of Environmental Racism?

Environmental racism manifests in numerous disconcerting ways. On a foundational level, the aforementioned communities are more likely to receive exposure to harmful environmental influences, such as:

  • Chemicals
  • Fumes
  • Ash and soot
  • Microplastics
  • Hazardous waste

These are only a few specifics in a long list of pollutants and trash. Because these influences impact communities, they worsen public health, eliminate food and water security, and increase financial instability. Here are a few examples.

Corporations Polluting Poor Communities

Companies will knowingly dump waste in communities of color because it is better for their bottom line. They do not have to pay for another megacorporation to transport and process their waste — instead, they get laborers in these regions to carry out work for them at a fraction of the cost. 

Often, the pollutants are tech or medical supplies, littering water and soil with chemicals and dangerous metals. Without proper PPE, citizens sort and handle the rubbish to the detriment of their health while they suffer low crop yields from the garbage.

An Ethical Ultimatum

These people do not want to support these horrible agencies. However, they are getting work with some semblance of pay. Even though it is meager or slave wage, many take the opportunity as an obligation to their families. It might be the only chance they have had recently for any income. 

They have no choice but to accept the work for short-term survival — they do not have the privilege to consider the long-term consequences of their participation, deepening environmental concerns and racism. Many understand accepting the work is antithetical to their beliefs and the well-being of their nation, neighborhoods, and families, which depletes morale and hope in the rest of the world to help make it all better. 

Natural Disasters Ravage 

Poorer and disadvantaged communities do not have financial savings if a natural disaster hits. Many places have no food stores or sturdy dwellings to withstand a storm. People in these situations are more likely to feel the effects of climate change because it is slow or impossible for them to recover. Usually, they have access to fewer resources for rebuilding, especially if companies are overextracting or taking advantage of them for their profit.

Setting Up New Operations

Victims of environmental racism often live in communities already affected by climate change or harsh environmental stressors. It only makes matters worse when companies set up harmful facilities such as natural gas or coal production nearby, which makes the situation worse. 

They do this because it is less expensive, and enterprises know they will receive less pushback than they would if they were near a more affluent community. This explicit prejudice assumes some people are worth more than others, and environmental racism awareness must stop this from perpetuating more than it already has.

How Can the World Heal from Environmental Racism?

You may not know you have received societal conditioning regarding environmental racism. Thankfully, there are many ways — large and small — to overcome its pervasiveness.

Self-Education and Curiosity

Understand the issues and proactively talk to people about them through safe platforms. Discussing facts instead of feelings is essential, especially when trying to convey politically charged social issues. The more curious you get, the more natural the information flows into you. That curiosity radiates to others listening to you talk about the topic, which makes them more interested in fighting against it themselves.

Engage in Activism

Activism can take numerous forms. It can look like emailing a problematic brand or going to the polls on voting day. You don’t have to go to rallies, protests, or volunteer all your spare time to an organization to be the perfect advocate. Do as much as you can with the resources you have to notify influencing bodies that environmental racism harms every life category.

Be Intersectional

Intersectional environmentalism is a broader term than environmental racism. It requires activists to view the climate crisis through the eyes of every type of person, regardless of race, gender, age, abilities, education, employment, income, and more. 

Those in the LGBTQIA+ community in South America experience climate change differently than children in Indonesia do. Elevating the voices of relevant voices of diverse backgrounds makes the conversation more holistic and informative.

Raising Awareness

Environmental racism is pervasive, preventing climate healing from being intersectional, just, and comprehensive. So many influences catalyze it, such as corporate greed, climate complacency, and lack of education. It may take time to dismantle these issues, but passionate climate activists believe it is possible. 

Committing to destroying the foundation of environmental racism does more than help the planet recover — it brings more peace, equality, and access to marginalized communities worldwide. The byproducts of overcoming environmental racism yield a happier, healthier, more empathetic, and more accepting human population. The first step is educating people on the issue and committing to taking even the most minute steps to remove it from the world.

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About the author

Rachel Lark

Rachel serves as the Assistant Editor of Environment.co. A true foodie and activist at heart, she loves covering topics ranging from veganism to off grid living.