“There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth. We are all crew.” – Marshall McLuhan
There can be no climate justice without social justice. The two are intrinsically linked; one cannot be resolved without addressing the other, if we truly seek lasting, positive change. Existing inequities are exacerbated as our environment and natural resources are overused, abused and polluted. All aspects of the environmental movement are connected to social justice and the inequities faced by marginalized, oppressed, and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) communities around the world.
So how do we act on climate in a just way that supports everyone?
A good place to start is acknowledging that environmentalism and sustainability look different for everyone — based on geography, access, education, mobility, resources, demographic, support, surroundings, a myriad of factors. Climate justice has wide-ranging definitions, meanings and applications. It is important to use inclusive language, so many more people feel empowered to join movements, contribute relevantly, and make change, large or small, to benefit people and planet.
US environmental activist Leah Thomas (@GreenGirlLeah), creator of the Intersectional Environmentalist organization, coined the term intersectional environment. She defines intersectional environmentalism as:
An inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for both the protection of people and the planet. It identifies the ways in which injustices happening to marginalized communities and the earth are interconnected. It brings injustices done to the most vulnerable communities, and the earth, to the forefront and does not minimize or silence social inequality. Intersectional environmentalism advocates for justice of people and the planet.
We need to consider the numerous and distinct ways that climate change, environmental degradation, and toxins impact diverse populations and communities, as well as ensure we are intentionally including all peoples in our activism. Then, we can proactively work to create equitable climate solutions that benefit everyone and the earth.
Western countries emit the highest levels of greenhouse gases because of industrialization, yet the countries that emit relatively low levels are the most vulnerable to adverse climate impact, and left to face the brunt of the consequences without adequate resources to address or combat negative repercussions. Meanwhile, in the US, marginalized communities and minorities are at an additional disadvantage when it comes to environmental crises and management. After adjusting for differences in population size, white Americans consume 17% less air pollution than they emit, whereas Black and Hispanic Americans consume respectively 56% and 63% more air pollution than they produce. From industrial polluters consolidated in poor neighborhoods in US cities to commercial waste shipped from developed to developing countries, marginalized and minority populations continue to face disproportionate and compounding environmental burdens, exposures and risks.
BIPOC communities are too often on the frontlines of the climate crisis, yet left more vulnerable without resources and information to prepare for or mitigate short and long term negative results, leading to health risks, food scarcity, unsafe habitability, even death. One real time example of this is the disproportionate harm of COVID-19, a result of many detrimental environmental and public health factors in BIPOC communities compounded by limited access to adequate healthcare.
These problems are not incidental; rather, they are the result of systematic and intentional racism. Between the 1930s and 1960s, the US government subsidized builders who produced subdivisions for white families, while the Federal Housing Authority refused to issue mortgages to families in or near Black neighborhoods. This was called redlining, a discriminatory practice denying services (both financial and social) to residents of certain areas based on their race or ethnicity. Redlining outlined areas with sizable Black populations in red ink on maps as a warning to mortgage lenders, effectively isolating Black people in areas that would suffer lower levels of investment than their white counterparts. This practice quickly created segregated neighborhoods and forced Black families into areas with less development and infrastructure, essentially those deemed inadequate by richer, white people. Polluting industries such as landfills, factories, and toxic waste disposal sites were more likely to be placed in or near Black neighborhoods because land was closer to other industries, less expensive, and further from white communities. (Excerpted from dsl.richmond.edu and cbsnews.com)
This is also an example of environmental racism, and it’s not just seen in the US. Low-income, minority communities around the world are more often exposed to toxic landfills and factories in comparison to their wealthier, majority counterparts.
Environmental justice is truly embodied by Indigenous peoples all over the world. Indigenous people have always been powerful voices in the fight to protect our lands and resources, and against climate change and injustice. In fact, Indigenous peoples control one quarter of Earth’s land, much of it rich with biodiversity. However, their right to land and tribal sovereignty is constantly ignored and violated by systems that threaten their ability to steward and preserve those natural lands in the present and future. In the United States, colonizers forced Indigenous peoples from their land and into segregated areas in the least desirable sections of the country, areas we know now to be the most susceptible to climate change and the devastating consequences of rapidly increasing temperatures.
Indigenous peoples continue to fight powerfully for the land they have and that which has been stolen, working towards a clean, just, equitable future — often with little political or economic power to slow perilous industrial projects like the Line 3 Pipeline, and inadequate resources to slow environmental degradation like the melting of sea ice, which threatens food security and survival. When their voices are repeatedly ignored, Indigenous peoples face compounding negative impacts, displacement, and lack of access to sacred, traditional ways of life. As the impacts of climate change worsen, Indigenous communities are losing potable water, natural resources, food sources, cultural sites, ancestral homelands, and places to safely raise the next generations.
Take the Maasai people of Tanzania, for example. Due to the creation of Western-centric national parks and tourist destinations, the Maasai have been and continue to be removed from their native lands in the name of wildlife preservation. Yet, the Maasai people have preserved the lands of Tanzania, protecting the animals and resources there, for thousands of years. The livelihoods and cultural heritage of the Maasai people continue to be threatened. This isn’t a solitary phenomenon; it is something we see all over the world due to exclusionary or out-of-touch conservation movements.
Environmentalism falls short yet again when it comes to the difficulties disabled people face on a daily basis. Actions that able-bodied people don’t think twice about can be monumental endeavors for people with mental and physical disabilities, and this applies to eco-friendly actions as well. Activities such as taking public transportation or drinking from reusable straws are not accessible to many, and because the environmental movement affects everyone worldwide, voices of disabled people provide a valuable and necessary contribution to eco spaces.
What can we do? What must we do? Stand boldly, proudly and unapologetically for climate AND social justice in every aspect of our work as environmentalists and human beings, through both word and deed, and center BIPOC voices and leaders. Support businesses that do the same, like today’s groundbreaking, rule-shattering partner, Dr. Bronner’s, an activist company that raises its voice unabashedly and unapologetically for our Earth, its guiding principles, and racial justice. “We are committed to working to end systemic racism however it manifests in our society, whether in police practices, government policies, or in everyday life. Together, we are All-One or None! All-One! Black Lives Matter!” Our partner Friends of the Earth leads worldwide campaigns to ensure environmental and social justice, human dignity, and respect for human rights so as to secure sustainable societies.
Planeteers, assemble! Just as the iconic superhero Captain Planet helps five young ‘planeteers’ from nations around the world fight to protect our planet and against those causing it harm or perpetuating injustice, we must recognize our combined power when we work as a global team in line with the Earth, Fire, Wind, Water and Heart. Our partner Captain Planet Foundation encourages eco responsible action inspired by the show, connecting and activating youth worldwide.
We, the next generation, are witnessing climate change before our eyes, understanding its effects, listening to marginalized peoples, building diverse coalitions, speaking out and rising up. Youth will be here on Earth for decades to come, with no choice but to continue to face and be impacted by the worsening environmental and social crises. Positive change begins with using our platform, privilege and power!
In order to successfully advocate for people and planet, we must deepen our understanding of environmental justice through the lens of intersectional environmentalism, recognizing how the climate crisis burdens some more than others.
Get informed with these resources:
History is rarely told through words alone; paintings, photographs, sculptures and other forms of artistic expression powerfully capture and convey emotion, meaning, movements, and moments. These valuable perspectives can reach even wider audiences and allow for deep personal interpretation. See recent examples here and here.
- Watch these short videos about Indigenous rights and environmental racism,
- Browse these maps here and here that examine opportunities for children depending on a variety of different factors, health and environment being one of them.
- Create a piece of art (physical or digital of any medium, size or length) that tells a story of environmental injustice and/or advocates for environmental justice. Communicate the gravity of these experiences, importance of visibility, and necessity for solutions.
Evaluate your own activism and advocacy. Consider ”The 4 Rs,” a concept explained by Kera Sherwood-O’Regan, an Indigenous multidisciplinary storyteller and activist from Aotearoa, the Māori name for New Zealand.
- Right Relationship
Find some resources, whether an article, video, TED Talk or otherwise. about climate justice that you find interesting. They can be on one topic or a variety. Consider these questions, and reflect on your new experiences and information:
- Whose voices are being represented? What stories are and are not included?
- Have you been taught about this in school? If not, how can you change that? How can you educate others?
- What can you learn from looking at this through the lens of the 4 Rs?
- With all you have learned and read, how would you define “climate justice?”