Environmental racism – What is it and why should we care?
The climate crisis threatens everyone’s right to a safe and clean environment, but people from BAME communities are already suffering from pollution disproportionately.
What is environmental injustice?
Alike many other discriminatory policies implemented by governments, environmental policies reflect existing power structures and entrench inequity in society. In the words of Mustafa Ali, former head of the EPA environmental justice program, “environmental injustice is about [the state] creating sacrifice zones where we place everything which no one else wants. The justification is always an economic one, that it makes sense to build chemical plants on so-called cheap lands where poor people and people of colour live, but which are only cheap because all the wealth and economic opportunities have been stripped out. The people who live in these areas are unseen, unheard and undervalued”. Adverse environmental conditions affect those most marginalised the worst, namely people from BAME communities and those from low-income backgrounds. This phenomenon is apparent worldwide: lands of Indigenous peoples are used as dumping grounds for waste without any regard for people or cultures, and in cities pollution levels are highest in areas with the highest proportion of marginalised residents. In the US, race is the number one indicator of the location of toxic facilities like coal fired power plants and incinerators.
Climate change and racism
It is not merely pollution that creates harm though – proliferation of climate change in itself is racist. The consequences of the climate crisis are increasingly adverse and rapid: for example droughts or extreme heat caused by global warming affect marginalised communities the most. As climate change accelerates, we must acknowledge and support not only those who suffer from the proximity of facilities that emit toxins to the environment, but also those whose homes will become inhabitable due to sea level rise, those who lose their livelihoods to floods, and those who lose loved ones to natural disasters and diseases exacerbated by climatic conditions. More often than not, these communities are located in the global South and the least able to afford adaptation to the worsening conditions, despite being the least responsible for climate change in the first place.
Environmental racism in the UK
Although climate change is a global issue by nature, the UK is very much culpable of racist policies regarding the environment. In London, for example, people from Black, African and Caribbean communities account for 15.3% of all those exposed to such high levels nitrogen dioxide that they breach EU limits, despite constituting only 13.3% of London’s population. In areas where air quality was poor 37% of residents were from the most deprived backgrounds, while only 7% were from the least deprived. JAN Trust is based in North London in the borough of Haringey, where nitrogen oxide levels exceed the EU limits. In Haringey, the proportion of BAME residents is higher than average. A United Nations Economic and Social Council report from 2017 condemned the UK for not meeting its responsibilities of environmental justice under international law. The pattern is clear – why are policy responses to pollution not reflecting it?
We need climate justice – now
The seriousness of this question becomes apparent when considering the consequences of environmental racism, for they are dire. Those exposed to toxic pollution suffer from various health issues and develop chronic conditions such as kidney, heart and lung diseases, and according to topical research, poor air quality actually increases risk of death from covid-19. African Americans are three times more likely to die from pollution than the overall population. Environmental racism literally leads to loss of life – it is high time that we do something about it.
At JAN Trust, we have been fighting structural marginalisation in society for over three decades. We support women and youth from BAME and Muslim backgrounds in becoming active citizens in their communities and beyond. The power of active community responses to environmental injustice is invaluable and should absolutely not go underestimated, however, the responsibility for structural change lies on the government and the policies implemented.