Environmental justice is a crucial part of the broader fight for a sustainable, resilient and equitable future. So is the end of the age of fossil fuels; in fact, decarbonization and environmental justice go hand in hand.
It is undeniable that minority and low-income communities have historically borne a disproportionate burden of environmental risks.
The environmental justice movement has its origins in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. As such, it is deeply rooted in black history.
The 1968 Memphis sanitation strike, which attracted Martin Luther King Jr., is considered the first nationally mobilized protest against environmental injustice.
In 1982, African Americans staged a mass protest against a polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) landfill in Warren County, North Carolina, an event that served as the catalyst for the birth of a political movement dedicated to fight against environmental injustice and environmental racism.
Of course, other communities of color had also mobilized against potential environmental threats, even before Warren County. In the 1960s Cesar Chavez led a struggle to organize migrant farm workers. He founded the National Farm Workers Association in 1962 with the goal of overthrowing a farm labor system in the United States that treated farm workers like slaves. Chavez had also recognized early on the dangers of exposing farm workers to pesticides in the fields, and in the early 1970s campaigned successfully to have DDT banned because of its harmful effects on the environment.
It is undeniable that minority and low-income communities have historically borne a disproportionate burden of environmental risks. Poor people and racial and ethnic minorities are much more likely to live near polluters and breathe polluted air. Robert Bullard’s studies have shown that hazardous waste, dumps and polluting industries almost always end up in poor, predominantly black communities rather than white, affluent suburbs.
Indeed, a 2017 report by the NAACP, Clean Air Task Force, and National Medical Association claimed that African Americans are 75% more likely than other Americans to live near industrial facilities that pollute the air. water and air and eroding the quality of life. In turn, a 2018 study by scientists from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that African Americans face a 54% higher health burden than the general population. Non-white communities had a 28% higher health burden and poor people had a 35% higher burden.
Environmental racism is undoubtedly very real, and the federal government has been aware of it for many decades. Yet “there is no federal law governing environmental injustice”, although environmental justice was institutionalized as a federal government priority in 1994 with the signing of Executive Order 12898 by Bill Clinton. Whatever progress has been made in the fight against environmental injustice and environmental racism is thanks to community organizing and activism.
There are currently over 140 major cases tracked by Environmental Justice Atlas. And virtually all of them are in communities where economically disadvantaged populations and racial and ethnic minorities reside.
One of the first organizations dedicated to fighting environmental injustice is Communities for a Better Environment. It was founded in 1978 with a mission to empower people in poor communities and communities of color in California to “achieve environmental health and justice by preventing and reducing pollution and building green, healthy and sustainable communities and environments”.
A decade later, the fight against environmental injustice and environmental racism has gained tremendous momentum with the formation of multiple organizations in the United States. This group includes WE ACT for Environmental Justice (1988), the Center for Race, Poverty & the Environment (1989), the Indigenous Environmental Network (1990), the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice (1990), the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice (1992) and the National Black Environmental Justice Network (1999). Earth Rights International, the first organization founded on the belief that US corporations could be held responsible for environmental crimes and human rights abuses committed abroad, was founded in 1995 and has grown into a dedicated global movement to the fight for climate justice.
More and more local environmental justice organizations surfaced in the coming years, not only because of growing public awareness of climate change, but also because environmental injustice remained prevalent in the United States. There are currently over 140 major cases tracked by Environmental Justice Atlas. And virtually all of them are in communities where economically disadvantaged populations and racial and ethnic minorities reside.
Over the years, Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley” has become one of the most egregious examples of “environmental racism.” “Cancer Alley” is an 85-mile-long stretch of the Mississippi River overgrown with petrochemical facilities. It is one of the most polluted places in the United States, and the cancer risk for the mostly African-American residents of the communities closest to the factories is 50 times higher than the national average.
Louisiana’s Cancer Alley is also a glaring example of government failure. But that should come as no surprise given the political influence of the oil, gas and chemical industries. Additionally, ProPublica’s investigation of carcinogenic pollution from industrial facilities also revealed flaws in the EPA’s pollution prevention and enforcement policies.
Many activists insist that environmental justice is inseparable from racial justice.
This is absolutely essential to effectively combat environmental injustice and environmental racism. Decarbonization is the key to fighting global warming and environmental injustices. Fossil fuels are at the heart of the climate crisis facing the world and the health and environmental injustices faced by poor and minority communities.
In this context, true leadership in the fight against global warming and environmental injustices requires being involved in the fight to end the global use of fossil fuels. The decarbonization ideals that underpin the Green New Deal are the only realistic way to stop global warming and build a sustainable, resilient, and equitable future.