THE WEATHER-CLIMATE GAP AND THE BLACK COMMUNITY
Climate change undoubtedly represents one of the most formidable challenges of our time. Yet some of the most vulnerable populations would likely challenge me on that statement. When faced with “kitchen table” issues like health care, monthly grocery bills, or heating the home, many people from marginalized communities are tempted to view climate change as a theoretical, academic construct about a starving polar bear, or only relevant to the distant future. In reality, the climate crisis is very much about those same familiar issues that Black America grapples with daily.
Studies continue to show that African American communities are disproportionately affected by climate-related hazards, such as heat, drought, hurricanes, and flooding, while accounting for a relatively small percentage of total carbon emissions. This so-called weather-climate gap is rooted in well-understood disparities associated with income, opportunity, and discriminatory practices. This gap presents a unique danger to Black Americans, making a sharper climate focus essential to the Black community’s well-being.
As an atmospheric scientist, it has been clear to me for decades that climate change is creating multifaceted risks for society. Our scientific trend lines, models, and analyses have long pointed to a “new normal” featuring intense hurricanes, prolonged heat waves, urban flooding, and debilitating drought. Cornell scholar Dr. Maria Cristina Garcia argues that people have been displaced by climate for thousands of years but that coping with the current crisis will require political will and adaptability of unprecedented scales. In 2005, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina gave us a glimpse of what the weather-climate gap looks like for certain communities. To deconstruct that glimpse, it is important to explore the concept of vulnerability.
At its core, environmental vulnerability can be framed in terms of exposure and sensitivity. In the case of Katrina, for example, people throughout the Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama coastal region were “exposed” to the storm. However, there were also varying degrees of “sensitivity” (injury, harm, economic hardship, or death) to the floods, wind, power outages, and damaged homes among residents of this area. The convergence of these terms represents a measure of weather-climate vulnerability. While the entire region struggled, the faces etched in our minds of those needing shelter, food, and medical care at the Superdome were people of color and the poorest residents of New Orleans. Similar disparities in vulnerability have played out with Hurricane Harvey (2017) and the Chicago Heat Wave (1995). Even in the Caribbean region, people of color were disproportionately displaced by Hurricane Maria (2018).
Climate vulnerability as a function of race is structurally rooted in “place.” According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Black Americans are more likely to live in urban heat islands, portions of a city that tend to be significantly warmer than surrounding areas due to the abundance of man-made surfaces like asphalt, as well as a lack of vegetation, poor ventilation, and anthropogenic waste heat, or heat generated by human beings. In 2020, a study published in the Journal of the American Planning Association revealed that historical redlining practices might also account for some of these disparities. Redlining early in the twentieth century, the practice of outlining poor and minority neighborhoods with a red outline for bankers, lenders, and insurers, led to underlying climate injustices. The environmental justice movement grew out of recognition that industry viewed Black communities as dumping grounds for waste and locations for undesirable industries.
The “climate justice” movement must address the weather-climate gap. As Professor Robert Bullard, the Father of Environmental Justice, has articulated with fervor, zip code or “living on the wrong side of the tracks” should not determine one’s risk or vulnerability to an extreme weather event. Yet the evidence clearly establishes that it does. A study emerging from my research group at the University of Georgia by Neil Debbage, now at the University of Texas–San Antonio, found that African Americans in the Atlanta-to-Charlotte urban corridor were more likely to live in flood-prone areas.
The inequities of climate change are further amplified by the fact that the largest percentage of Black people resides in Southern states or cities. These regions experience the full suite of climatic hazards, including heat, hurricanes, tornadoes, drought, flooding, snowstorms, and wildfires. Communities will continue to struggle as such events increase in intensity or frequency. As a whole, African Americans lag behind in income, have higher health disparities, and have inadequate insurance. Heat waves, landfalling hurricanes, and flooding further amplify an already unequal burden. So what do we do?
African American communities must become more “climate-centric.” It is important to view climate change as an economic, health, and societal threat in the same way that we view COVID-19 or a recession. Communities must take ownership of climate planning and adaptation strategies that address the social disparities outlined. Disaster management planning and mitigation strategies must be developed and implemented in anticipation of future threats rather than as a reaction to an episodic event. From a political perspective, African Americans must vote with the climate crisis in mind on the local, state, and national levels. Ultimately, however, the weather-climate gap will not disappear until racial wealth inequality disappears.
The “new energy” economy of solar, wind, and other sources creates an unprecedented opportunity for mitigating this inequality. The African American community must be positioned to benefit from and leverage this new economic reality. Put another way, we must be trained in blue-collar and STEM-based jobs, prepare our communities for new infrastructure, and envision new economic realities in a non-fossil-fuels-based economy. It remains to be seen whether a “Green New Deal” will garner enough bipartisan support to flourish, but there will likely be some action along such lines in the future. Are we ready?
Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail was written with a charge for community action and a stance against racial injustice. However, his poignant remarks are relevant herein.
I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
Before joining the faculty at the University of Georgia, I spent twelve years of my career as a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. We studied Earth as a system because the atmosphere, oceans, cryosphere, and biosphere are all interconnected. Just as Dr. King saw a network of mutuality in the Civil Rights Movement, I see it in our shared vulnerability and response to climate change. The weather-climate gap is fundamentally an issue of civil rights, and we must approach it as such to create a safe and equitable world for all.
Debbage, Neil. “Multiscalar Spatial Analysis of Urban Flood Risk and Environmental Justice in the Charlanta Megaregion, USA.” Anthropocene 28 (2019): 100226. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S2213305419300372.
EPA. “Heat Islands and Equity.” http://epa.gov/heatislands/heat-islands-and-equity.
Wilson, Bev. “Urban Heat Management and the Legacy of Redlining.” Journal of the American Planning Association 86, no. 4 (2020): 443–457. doi: 10.1080/01944363.2020.1759127. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/01944363.2020.1759127.
INTERSECTIONAL ENVIRONMENTALISM MUST SHAPE CLIMATE ACTION
Abigail Abhaer Adekunbi Thomas
Intersectionality, a term coined by civil rights advocate and critical race theory scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, has sparked critical conversations and discourse for many years on how gender, race, and class interact and impact the way people with multiple marginalized identities experience the world. Crenshaw first introduced the world to intersectionality in 1989 with her paper “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” which explores how Black American women’s oppression is compounded by race, class, and gender discrimination. In her analysis, Crenshaw illustrates how an intersectional framework acknowledges and centers the multiple oppressed identities of Black American women and creates a more holistic and effective approach to addressing racism and sexism.
Although the term intersectionality was born out of addressing the nexus of race, gender, and class, it can also be applied more broadly to address global issues like the climate crisis. The framework of intersectional environmentalism incorporates Crenshaw’s theory and applies it to challenge one-dimensional solutions to environmental and climate issues. Many environmentalists and organizations, including Robert Bullard, known as the Father of Environmental Justice; Generation Green, which coined the term and theory of environmental liberation; and more recently the Intersectional Environmentalist, the organization who developed and shaped the term intersectional environmentalism in 2020, have incorporated and expanded Crenshaw’s theory into conversations around climate action. They continue to prove that intersectional environmentalism is the only path forward toward creating transformative and lasting solutions toward addressing climate change.
Intersectional environmentalism provides the holistic perspective that advocating for environmental protection includes dismantling the oppressive social, economic, and political systems that perpetuate harm, especially for marginalized communities who are disproportionately impacted by climate change. It recognizes that without addressing the systemic issues that are impacting our world today, we cannot successfully make environmental progress that benefits everyone, not just the handful of those who are privileged and will not bear disproportionate effects of climate change. Furthermore, by incorporating an intersectional lens to environmentalism, we can see how environmental issues directly relate to and are a product of capitalism, white supremacy, and colonialism. While at first the concept of intersectional environmentalism may seem overwhelming or too expansive to practically incorporate into climate action moving forward, it actually supports a targeted method of understanding and addressing climate action in a way that dismantles multiple issues altogether.
We consistently see the success of an intersectional frame of mind through environmental justice wins from the termination of the Keystone XL oil pipeline in the U.S. and Canada to the court ruling in Mombasa, Kenya, where Owino Uhuru settlement residents were compensated for the health effects their community endured from a local battery recycling facility in the area. In both instances, acknowledging the degradation of the planet and the devastating impacts these issues place on communities was critical in challenging the status quo of short-term economic interests from large corporations. Not only did these victories combat major environmental issues, but they also addressed critical public health and human rights issues. Having seen success in incorporating intersectional environmentalism into localized environmental and climate movements, the next logical step is to apply these tactics and climate actions to address the root causes and the outcomes of climate change.
One of the best ways to do this is through more collaboration and solidarity between climate and abolitionist movements. Prison abolition, abolition democracy, and environmental justice are all linked and directly rooted in the same systems of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and capitalism that perpetuate harm across various communities. This interconnectedness is a tremendous hazard, but also our biggest strength. This strength comes not only from solidarity across movements but in the resources, tools, experiences, and knowledge that can be shared between communities. Through unification, we can create spaces that cultivate collective action and movement building that can drive major structural, inclusive changes.
While most people think of prison abolition as purely a social justice issue, prison systems are also a major environmental injustice. Both social and political prisoners globally are among the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change and are also directly impacted by environmental pollution. Most prisons do not meet environmental and public health regulations, and are usually near landfills, mines, and toxic waste dumps, especially in the U.S., where roughly 589 or more federal and state prisons are within three miles of Superfund cleanup sites, which are known to be hazardous commercial waste sites that require long-term and extensive cleanup programs. This exemplifies a major environmental injustice in areas such as the U.S. and UK, because a majority of prisoners are low-income Black, Indigenous, or people of color, which makes them disproportionately impacted by environmental pollution and hazards. In fact, according to the Abolitionist Law Center and the Human Rights Coalition in their 2014 yearlong review No Escape, 80 percent of inmates at SCI Fayette in Pennsylvania were reported to suffer from respiratory, throat, and sinus infections due to their exposure to coal ash. Furthermore, capitalism plays a large role in exacerbating environmental and public health issues in prisons due to the prison industrial complex. The prison industrial complex describes how governments, private prison industry, companies, and law enforcement work together to fuel, exploit, and profit off the criminal justice system and imprisonment of people. In addition to these realities, the prison-industrial complex has a substantial impact on industrial emissions. According to a Portland State University study, mass incarceration and the increased rate of imprisonment have links to emissions in the U.S. due to the billion-dollar industry of private prisons. The construction of new prisons, the resources associated with building these new prisons, and the renovations and expansion of existing prisons all make significant contributions to fossil fuel emissions. Companies also use cheap prison labor to increase profits, driving up production and thus pollution, capitalism, and the serious environmental health impacts incarcerated people face every day without adequate health care.
Just as these injustices compound one another, sharing solutions and ideas across movements can be instrumental in combating oppression. Restorative justice, a practice rooted in Indigenous cultures throughout the world, is a concept used in the prison abolition framework in the U.S. It encourages solutions to repair the harm caused by crime offenders against victims. This has been presented as an alternative to incarceration, which could restore all parties involved when a crime has occurred. Studies have shown that it effectively reduces repeat offenses as well as reduces post-traumatic stress symptoms for victims and provides more tangible and long-term satisfaction and justice for victims. If we also use restorative justice solutions to climate issues, we can come up with stronger forms of accountability, like climate reparations, a term coined by Maxine Burkett, for environmental crimes and injustices. Using reparations as a tool to address and acknowledge the harm created by climate to the Majority World could also be an extremely effective tool to use as a step toward transformative climate justice for communities who have been negatively impacted by climate change, environmental pollution, and health issues.
In addition to prison abolition, there is a significant space for the climate movement to step into and work alongside the abolition democracy movement. Abolition democracy is a framework developed by American civil rights leader W. E. B. Du Bois in his book Black Reconstruction in America, where he examines how systems of oppression are foundational and deeply embedded in the U.S. government. The U.S. continues to illustrate this fragmented system through the current wave of voter suppression laws that predominantly impact voters of color, low-income communities, LGBTQ+ voters, and voters with disabilities, who face increasing environmental injustice. The disenfranchisement of marginalized groups impacts communities’ ability to make radical political and cultural shifts and vote for their health, safety, and future. Centuries of diluting votes and inhibiting communities from voting against harmful policies and politicians has continued the cycle of environmental and social degradation to keep harmful systems and people in power. This is why it is critical for the voting rights movement and the environmental movement to work together on voting structures that build people power and support spaces for voters to see the impacts their votes have on their community.
Both restorative justice and abolition democracy can and should pave the way for additional resources to be redirected toward global systemic issues like colonialism, which has also exacerbated the impacts of climate change for the Majority World or middle- to lower-income countries. Among the many pieces of abolition democracy is the U.S. government’s reliance on imperialism and neocolonialism in the Majority World. Not only does this form of oppression perpetuate extraction, but it also exacerbates climate and environmental injustice. Most U.S.-based multinational corporations have their operations in Majority World countries, where environmental and social regulations are less stringent than regulations in the U.S. or any other country in the West. This concentration of production, coupled with the deregulation and monitoring of production, exposes vulnerable communities living near or working in these production sites to environmental pollution and health impacts.
The links between prison abolition, abolition democracy, and environmental justice illustrate how combining and integrating these efforts would promote extremely effective and powerful solutions to environmental, social, and political issues globally. Incorporating abolition into the intersectional environmental framework provides climate action with more of a solution-oriented viewpoint that focuses on how we can rethink the cultural, political, and economic systems that exacerbate and fuel climate change. It should be central to all climate action whether policy, on-the-ground efforts, or in environmental education. When we begin to look at environmentalism through a holistic perspective that embraces innovative, regenerative, and transformative solutions, we address some of the larger institutions and structures that environmental issues are built upon and understand that the best path forward for both the planet and people is to provide solutions that liberate marginalized communities and abolish all systems of oppression.
Copyright © 2022 by Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman