Environmental injustice reveals that while the changing of our planet’s climate will inevitably impact us all, it will not do so equally.

Our experience of climate change, like much else, is dependent on our race, social standing and income. This is a predictable pattern concerning the world’s privileged and deprived. Not only does it play out globally, but locally too, and in ways so inherent to our society’s architecture that we rarely recognise it as environmental injustice — or suppression upheld by racism.

Communities of colour live on bad land

The Global South already faces some of the most calamitous natural disasters, intensified by carbon-fuelled actions in the Global North. Likewise, within the Anglosphere (the world’s English-speaking nations that share common cultural and historical ties) low-income communities, often made up of people of colour, are more likely to suffer from high levels of pollution. They are also more likely to be situated near factories, chemical plants and landfills, and have limited access to green spaces essential to physical and mental wellbeing — unlike their richer and often whiter counterparts.

The justifications for these communities being disproportionately exposed to toxicity is always economic. From a capitalistic standpoint, it makes sense to have these polluting facilities run on cheaper land on which communities of colour often reside. Robert Bullard, known as the Father of Environmental Justice, refers to these spaces as designated sacrifice zones.

‘Sacrifice zones are often “fenceline communities” of low-income and people of color, or “hot spots” of chemical pollution where residents live immediately adjacent to heavily polluted industries. Quite often, this pattern of unequal protection constitutes environmental racism’.

Sacrifice Zones

Big polluting cities

An estimated two million Americans suffer from asthma, with Black and Hispanic Americans far more likely to live in smog-choked cities, triggering and worsening the condition compared to white Americans. This difference in the quality of living conditions leads to vastly different experiences of water and air, as well as unequal health outcomes.

Similarly, in the UK, my own home of Tower Hamlets in East London, a densely populated area with a large immigrant South Asian community, has been hardest hit in terms of air pollution amongst all the London boroughs. This is an observable pattern throughout the city, argues Andrea Lee, Clean Air Campaigns Manager from Client Earth:

‘socio-economically disadvantaged [areas] are often those worst affected by air pollution’.

This dire situation constituting a public health crisis was starkly exposed when the Royal College of Physicians reported that, ‘around 40,000 deaths in the UK per year are attributed to outdoor exposure to air pollution’.

Environmental injustice feeds Covid

If we couple this already grievous state of affairs with the current pandemic, where those infected with coronavirus will experience mild to moderate respiratory illness, then the impact of existing environmental injustices such as high levels of air pollution in certain communities will ‘lead to a larger increase in the Covid-19 infectivity and mortality rate’, as found in a January 2021 study (focusing on England) in the journal Environmental Pollution. However, another study from October 2020, published in the Cardiovascular Research journal, looked into the global contributions to risk of death from Covid-19 and reported that: ‘particulate air pollution contributed 15% to COVID-19 mortality worldwide’.

As awareness of this inequity grows, community activists have taken the lead in resisting environmental injustice — sometimes at risk to themselves. Recently, Chicago residents in the Southeast Side have taken on a hunger strike to combat the opening of a metal recycling plant on the already highly polluted area, largely made up of Black and Latino people. Voicing their grievance, they said: ‘the plant uses machines known to produce dangerous dust […] in a community that already has high levels of respiratory illness’.

Like many of our fights for equality, if we do not acknowledge the structures that uphold disparities we cannot begin to change them. Environmental justice needs to be seen as part and parcel of social justice; a vital element to consider in the dismantling and rebalancing of power, in order to demand proper protection for communities of colour and working-class areas. From restricting the expansion of polluting facilities to raising awareness of deadly air pollution levels and empowering at-risk communities to be part of the decision-making, there are overarching and essential changes that can be made to impede the disastrous impact environmental injustice carries.

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