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What We Mean When We Say We Need Climate Justice

By Sabaah Choudhary, she/her

Living in a city that experiences all four seasons fully, maybe too much winter if I’m being completely honest, and now beginning to see the beautiful beginnings of a lush spring is both exhilarating and heartbreaking at the same time. It’s a reminder that while so much of our healing, livelihood and LIFE come from Mother Earth, we still don’t treat her as we should. Changes to the environment also clearly illustrate that not all communities have a chance to experience the environment in the same way, or at all.

When we talk about dismantling systems of oppression and racism, it’s so important to remember that all of these systems touch every aspect of life—and this includes the environment. When we look at “fixing” these systems in isolation, we lose the bigger picture. So many of our systemic problems are linked; they’re all rooted in the same patriarchal and dark colonial history. This is why when we talk about climate action, what we really need is climate justice.

Environmental racism is a form of systemic racism that is the direct result of discriminatory institutional policies and practices. All around the world communities of color are disproportionately burdened with hazardous living and health conditions related to policies and practices that force them to live in close proximity to pollution and waste. This is why our communities have been at the forefront of dealing with climate change and suffer from greater rates of health problems because of their toxic environments.

Environmental racism isn’t new, and Black, Brown and Indigenous communities have been dealing with the brunt of climate change and pollution for quite some time, while simultaneously advocating for the protection of the air, water, and land. Our access to the fundamentals of life have been limited or tainted because of environmental racism.

How It’s Playing Out

In Sarnia, Ontario, Canada, there’s a place nicknamed Chemical Valley” because of the sheer number of chemical plants in the area. The pollution and toxicity from these plants has been specifically causing adverse health effects to the surrounding Aamjiwnaang First Nation community.

The South Bronx has been nicknamed “Asthma Alley” because of the poor air quality and excessive amounts of air pollution in the area compared to the rest of New York. Specifically, the South Bronx’s asthma rate is eight times higher than the national average, and one in four children suffer from the disease, The Bronx also happens to be the most racially and ethnically diverse borough in New York.

The Blackest city in America, Detroit, is presently dealing with alarming levels of air pollution. Specifically in zip code 48217, where 71% of the residents are black, community members routinely see orange skies, because of neighboring oil refineries that are causing extreme amounts of air pollution.

Environmental racism isn’t limited to the confines of our borders either. Research has been telling us for decades now that developing countries predominantly populated by Black and Brown communities will be the most impacted by climate change. These countries are already starting to see its cataclysmic effects and are the least equipped to deal with staggering costs associated with climate change.

Climate Advocacy

The above stories are just a drop in the bucket. There are so many examples of environmental racism showing how racialized communities, who are already vulnerable to systemic racism and injustices, don’t get to experience the same quality of life simply because of the community they’re from and where they live. 

As climate advocates, we speak often about how we need millions, if not billions, of climate activists all around the world. This is true,  but we also need these same activists to be actively anti-racist in their approach. We can’t dismantle one system without understanding that the racist institutions oppressing Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities are the exact same ones exploiting our planet.

When we say we’re all in this together, what we mean is that while we’re all advocating for the same cause, our individual experiences with the environment (and subsequently climate change) are actually quite different. Climate justice provides an acknowledgment that for racialized communities, we’re not just fighting against impending climate disaster, we’re also advocating against centuries-long environmental and systemic racism. This is why our climate activism must begin with advocacy for our most vulnerable communities. And above all, climate justice is a rallying cry against white supremacy and the harms caused by archaic, oppressive systems to our communities and our planet.

Written by Sabaah Choudhary/Alphabets for Youth To The People