The whole world knows it... well, ALMOST the whole world: climate change is real. It’s real and it’s happening right now and people all over the country and the world will continue experiencing its effects, no matter what the president thinks.
But the truth is that while a warming planet will have serious, often catastrophic consequences for all of us, the brunt of climate change’s impacts will be felt by frontline communities—communities of color, indigenous communities, and low-income communities that are already dealing with a legacy of entrenched environmental injustice.
Like climate change, that legacy is manmade. It’s not an accident or a coincidence that African Americans are far more likely to live near a power plant or toxic facility—or that poorer people and people of color suffer higher rates of cancer and asthma and are generally in poorer health than America’s richer, whiter citizens.
What’s the cause of that injustice? In this country, it often comes down to things like sneaky zoning laws that happen to be racist at their core, targeting by polluting industries, and lax environmental standards, to cite just a few factors—the same factors that put these same communities at risk for the worst effects of climate change.
When most of us think of climate change, we probably picture polar bears and melting ice. The climate justice movement doesn’t discount the toll climate change will take on the natural world—but the movement does demand that we think about the effect it’s already having on some of the most vulnerable people across the globe.
Climate change is real, and so is the suffering of frontline communities. Here are six examples of when climate change became a matter of climate justice.
Item number 1
New York & New Jersey
Remember Hurricane Sandy? New Yorkers sure do. In 2012, this Category 1 hurricane hit the Atlantic coast, devistating communities from New Hampshire to Virginia. But nowhere was hit harder than New York and New Jersey. And there, nobody felt the impact as acutely as low-income people and minorities. For the 33% of residents of the storm surge area who lived in government-assissted housing, recovery was a long, difficult process. Streets were flooded, residents were without power for three weeks, and even today, almost 5 years later, many low-income neighborhoods are still in need of repairs.
Item number 2
The Solomon Islands are an archipelago in the Pacific. Five of its islands, all uninhabited, disappeared last year. That’s the good news. The bad news is that six other islands lost swaths of land to the sea, with entire villages wiped out and people forced to move. Nuatambu island has lost half its inhabitable area since 2011. Not much help is available for nations like the Solomons that had no part in creating climate change, yet are suffering some of its worst impacts. Rectifying that was the driving force between the Green Climate Fund, which intends to raise billions of dollars from rich countries to offset the effect of climate change on developing countries.
Item number 3
The Gulf Coast
Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans and the surrounding Gulf coast in 2005, hit African Americans and poor people hardest. And race played a role in the slow emergency response, leaving communities of color stranded for far longer than they should have been. Here, as elsewhere, climate change merely compounded a history of environmental injustice. After the end of slavery, ruling whites pushed African Americans into segregated low-lying districts prone to flooding, marginal areas which eventually became home to polluting factories and plants. Throw poor water- and sewage-management practices into the mix, and it’s easy to see that Katrina was a manmade disaster many decades in the making.
Item number 4
The Iñupiat people have lived in the region around the tiny town of Kivalina, Alaska (population: 400), for generations. And for hundreds of years, they have hunted bowhead whales from atop the sea ice. But now that ice is melting rapidly, threatening to put an end to the hunt, and possibly to the whole town. The sea ice had always protected Kivalina from ocean waves barreling toward the shore, but with the sea ice diminishing at an astonishing rate, the town could be wiped out altogether. The price for relocating the town? $100 million. And with other indigenous groups fighting just for clean drinking water (remember the Dakota Access Pipeline?), it’s clear their struggle has a systemic basis.
Item number 5
Turkana County, Kenya
Where the coasts of many nations are at risk from rising sea levels, inland areas may be exposed to a host of different threats. Turkana County in northwestern Kenya is home to a growing population that lives in crushing poverty. Data shows that over the past few decades shifting precipitation patterns have left the rural region with less rainfall, a critical resource for the community. That, coupled with higher temperatures, means the grazing lands are drying up and there’s less water to drink, for people and livestock. The result is greater poverty and widespread hunger.
Item number 6
Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana
Members of Native American tribes settled this area in Louisiana more than 100 years ago, hunting, trapping, and farming all across what was a lush island. But more than 90% of the island’s land mass has been washed away since 1955. Even though there’s little land left now, three previous efforts to relocate the community failed. In fact, many residents don’t want to leave: they don’t want to leave their history, their community, their land, and their way of life. The current plan would move about 60 people at a cost of $48 million. Given the price tag here (such as in Kivalina, in Alaska), imagine the costs associated with, say, moving the residents of Miami...
Sometimes when people talk about climate change, they say that our children will pay the price for our inaction. No doubt that’s true, but it also speaks to the privilege enjoyed by the speaker. Because while some of us may be okay right now, there are others, including many children, who are not. Climate change isn’t on its way—it’s already here. And now that we know the federal government will do nothing to address it, we need to join together and lead the fight ourselves.
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