How to Unite the Fight for Racial Equity and Environmental Action

To truly achieve an equitable, fair, and greener future, we must defend Black lives and our climate future, together.

A child plays on the front porch of a brick home while a woman wearing a face mask looks on. A sign on the front lawn reads "St. James is our home. No Formosa"

Sharon Lavigne, 68, who lives along the Mississippi River in Louisiana’s St. James Parish, is a vocal activist for her community, fighting against the petrochemical industry's environmental abuse. More than 200 industrial facilities have polluted the local area here for decades. Known as Cancer Alley or Death Alley, this is where cancer, asthma, and other health problems are some of the highest in the country.


Ed Kashi/VII/Redux

This past year has been one of radical awareness for society. As we collectively wake up to tragic realities—from entrenched racial injustice to the increasing irreversibility of the climate crisis—we do not have to choose between which fight we join. The time is now for individuals, governments, and corporate America to confront these intertwined crises head-on.

“The connections [between climate and racial justice] are inextricable,” says Yerina Mugica, who recently served as NRDC’s interim chief equity officer. “It's a question of whether we choose to recognize that or not. The communities that are most impacted by racial injustice are the same communities that are most impacted by climate change and climate injustice. As we know, this is no accident or coincidence. It is part of the design of systems that were built on racism. So the solutions need to be built on anti-racism.”

These practices will help ground your fight to dismantle both systems of oppression at once.

Practice intersectional environmentalism.

Environmentalism without intersectionality lacks depth and nuance. The concept of intersectionality, in regards to feminism, was coined in the late 1980s by activist and professor Kimberlé Crenshaw. She found that Black women were excluded from traditional feminist ideas because they faced overlapping discrimination, rooted in gender and race. When applied to environmentalism, intersectionality highlights how marginalized groups with different identities are affected in a host of ways stemming from the environmental injustices they endure.

Intersectional environmentalism seeks justice for the colonization of stolen land, an end to environmental racism, equitable access to green space, and equitable representation and access for the LGBTQ+ and disabled communities in the outdoors. Intersectional environmentalism advocates for the protection of both people and the planet. This form of activism recognizes that climate justice requires social justice, and vice versa.

Advocate for systematic change by speaking out against unscrupulous corporate actors.

Don’t fall victim to what some corporations would have you believe: That the fate of the planet rests mainly on members of the public curbing their personal emissions. Notably, the oil giant BP popularized the concept of a “personal carbon footprint” through a 2005 advertising campaign. In doing so, BP effectively enacted a cultural shift to assign blame to individuals rather than industry. (Similarly, in the 1950s, industry groups that represented packaging companies and other perpetrators of our throwaway culture initiated the “anti-litter movement” in part to steal attention away from the need for legislation to control these companies’ own waste problems.)

Certainly, the small steps we take at home add up, but at this point, the huge amount of pollution-cutting progress needed requires a commitment to change business as usual by entities like the 20 fossil fuel companies responsible for a third of the world’s carbon emissions. The five largest publicly traded oil and gas companies protect their interests by spending nearly $200 million annually lobbying against environmental protection policies. Influential companies across all industries work hard to greenwash their way out of the climate crisis with deceptive advertising.

The harm done by individuals pales in comparison to continual unchecked corporate exploitation. Corporations produce the vast majority of what we buy, use, and discard, and are a driving force behind global climate change. Beyond the energy sector—which has been responsible for 71 percent of all industrial emissions since human-driven climate change was officially recognized—many other industries also play a big role.The top 15 U.S. food and beverage companies generate nearly 630 million metric tons of greenhouse gases every year, for example. The roots of climate injustice are deeply embedded in both how corporations choose to operate, and in how our public policies empower their practices, so our solutions must address both.

We need stringent regulations to protect the vulnerable: victims of environmental racism, communities exposed to life-threatening toxic chemicals, workers exploited by profit-driven companies, and the planet’s natural resources. The companies that prioritize their bottom lines over their consciences have to be held accountable.

Make your environmentalism a communal practice—not a contest.

Even if everyone had the access and privilege necessary to reduce their individual carbon footprint, the climate crisis would press on. Nevertheless, the populations without access to the resources, the means, the free time, and the energy to reconsider their personal habits are too often vilified for not measuring up. This competitive attitude doesn’t bring us any closer to the world we want to see.

Take a step back and realize that comparing your green habits to a neighbor’s is like arguing that you're closer to the moon because you’re three and a half inches taller. With a little bit of perspective, it’s a wash. Serve people beyond the narrow bounds of your hometown. Look around to neighboring communities and prioritize their well-being. Find out which communities in your region might be struggling with contaminated tap water or the impacts of a hazardous waste facility or other big polluters near their homes. Focus on overarching themes, not just individual decisions. Support efforts that do not place any additional burden on marginalized individuals. Maintaining a communal practice prioritizes the responsibility to demand access to the most basic rights—clean water, clean air, a healthy home—for all.

Learn more about environmental racism.

Environmental racism is a crucial part of the climate crisis conversation. The environment itself is not racist. Phew. But environmental resources, such as the air we breathe and the water we drink, are governed by a corrupt, racialized system. Through his book Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality, published three decades ago, Dr. Robert D. Bullard introduced a comprehensive definition of the term environmental racism. He raised awareness of how public policies and industry practices disproportionately place the burden of pollution, waste, and climate-related disasters on BIPOC communities, and demonstrated how a lack of infrastructure and community resources only further exacerbates their vulnerability.

This discrimination manifests in practices such as redlining, in which mortgage lenders draw red lines around communities that they do not want to give loans to, largely targeting low-income communities of color. The United States is still segregated today because redlining has pushed BIPOC communities out of city centers, farther away from natural spaces, closer to highways, factories, and hazardous waste facilities, and into lower-quality homes. In turn, these communities have faced the greatest exposure to pollution and are at heightened risk for climate-related disasters, such as hurricanes and floods—as well as the gentrification and displacement that follows.

Though research has shown that it is primarily white Americans consuming the goods and services linked to the creation of fine particulate matter—the deadliest form of air pollution—that pollution is disproportionately inhaled by Black Americans. It should come as no surprise, then, that asthma mortality rates in children and adults are nearly eight and three times higher, respectively, in Black Americans than in white people. Communities of color also face unequal access to safe drinking water compared to white communities. In assigning pollution, waste, and risk of disaster to communities of color, higher rates of cancer and earlier death are also set.

Support a green economy that uplifts BIPOC communities.

Increasing production and use of clean energy is a crucial step in the arduous task of halting the climate crisis. But the United States has a lot of ground to make up in growing its renewable energy sectors, including energy efficiency, solar, wind, battery storage, and clean cars. That includes recognizing the economic and social benefits these developments bring—particularly for BIPOC communities.

The 2020 U.S. Energy & Employment Report showed that the major clean energy sectors supported more than 3.3 million U.S. jobs in 2019. But we must also make certain that workers benefit from our country’s shift to a cleaner energy economy, that lawmakers are mindful of the potential for corporations to continue abusive practices in the race to produce renewable tech, and that the transition does not simply reinforce existing inequities. This includes making sure that the city and state leaders we elect help make clean energy jobs available to people who may not live near training centers or who do not have the knowledge about, or access to, these work opportunities. For example, they should support the types of community solar projects that train residents of low-income communities of color to not only install solar panels in their areas, but also to become cooperative owners of their own solar-installation businesses. Initiatives like these ensure that the clean energy industry is led by those who have been on the frontlines of the environmental movement for decades—BIPOC—so they finally have the power to protect their communities.

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