Environmental Racism and Climate Justice: The Racialized Climate Catastrophe

A child navigates flooding in the Kurigram District of Bangladesh. Photo Credit: The United Nations Children’s Fund/Akash

In policymaking circles at home and abroad, there is a growing consensus that climate change represents a grave threat to both national and global security. From Southeast Asia to the Arctic Circle, disparate regions will contend with rising sea levels, shifting weather patterns, crop failure and resource scarcity on an unprecedented scale. States already strained by the coronavirus pandemic and economic stagnation will grapple with the second and third order effects of climate change such as mass displacement, ruined infrastructure, novel disease and famine.[i] However, the climate threat will not affect all of us equally. Domestically, structural racism ensures that communities of color suffer disproportionately from the causes and effects of climate change.[ii] Internationally, the countries least responsible for global warming will confront its most destructive consequences. Any climate policy must reflect the asymmetrical nature of the impending catastrophe and contain robust considerations for climate justice.

On a domestic level, the most immediate threat to human security (i.e., peoples’ lives and livelihoods) is also a driver of global warming itself: industrial pollution.[iii] In the United States, Black and Hispanic people are more exposed to pollution than white Americans who enjoy better air quality, yet pollute more on average.[iv] Countless examples of industrial pollution can be found across the South, a region heavily populated by African Americans.[v] In Louisiana, pollution by Exxon prompted residents to rename their 85-mile stretch of river communities “Cancer Alley.”[vi] People of color in North Carolina and Virginia have outsized exposure coal ash deposits containing carcinogens such as mercury, lead and arsenic.[vii] In Uniontown, Alabama (90% Black), a toxic landfill twice the size of Central Park causes asthma and nerve damage.[viii] 70% of the country’s contaminated waste sites are near low-income housing.[ix] People of color are more likely to breathe polluted air and live near coal plants and toxic sites than any other demographic.[x] Beyond health concerns, Native Americans must also confront the dispossession and desecration of sacred land.[xi] This racially stratified distribution of harm lies at the heart of environmental racism; the drivers of climate change are anything but colorblind.[xii]

Structural racism related to the availability of housing and access to government support leaves Black individuals ill-equipped to withstand climate-fueled natural disasters. Black coastal communities in the South are particularly vulnerable to sea level rise.[xiii] Black neighborhoods are disproportionately susceptible to flooding and hurricanes.[xiv] Climate change will cause the most economic damage to communities of color, yet these same communities are often denied federal disaster assistance.[xv] In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina—the “poster child” for climate injustice—plans for redevelopment centered on white areas that experienced the least amount of flooding.[xvi] Decimated Black neighborhoods, by contrast, were denied redevelopment funding and designated as future green space.[xvii] 80% of destroyed homes belonged to Black families, and Black individuals represented over half of total fatalities caused by the hurricane.[xviii] When a natural disaster hits, racist climate policy virtually guarantees that people of color bear the brunt of physical and economic damage.

When the aperture is widened to account for the racialized hierarchies of our international system—the legacy of colonialism and empire—climate injustice becomes even more pronounced.[xix] Countless studies have shown that industrialized Western nations are to blame for our lamentable predicament.[xx] Developed nations were responsible for 70% of CO2 emissions between 1850-2016.[xxi] The U.S. contains 4% of the world’s population yet is responsible for nearly a third of global emissions.[xxii] The picture is even starker when viewed on a per-capita basis. Annually, the U.S. emits 16.2 metric tons of CO2 per capita; the per capita emission of all lower and middle-income countries combined is 2.5 metric tons.[xxiii] The ten most food insecure countries generate less than half a metric ton of CO2 per capita.[xxiv] Each year, the emissions of an average American will be equivalent to that of 583 Burundians.[xxv] It is hardly radical to note the correlation between the West’s vast accumulation of wealth—enabled by the Industrial Revolution and colonialism—and the accelerated anthropogenic warming of the planet.

As is the case domestically, the repercussions of unchecked greenhouse gasemissions by rich nations are predictably imbalanced. An American will emit 33 times more CO2 than a Bangladeshi, yet it is Bangladesh that contends with torrential rain, cyclones, and a rapidly disappearing coastline.[xxvi] The story is the same across the Global South.[xxvii] The Horn of Africa has been ravaged by droughts that threaten widespread famine.[xxviii] In India, the irregularity of seasonal monsoons wreak havoc on agricultural productivity.[xxix] Tide amplification and salt intrusion endanger the viability of Southeast Asia’s Mekong Basin.[xxx] If climate change is a threat multiplier, it must be a viewed as an injustice multiplier as well. Poor countries are less prepared to withstand climate shocks, more dependent on vulnerable agriculture-based economies, and less equipped for adaptation.[xxxi] While the U.S. worries about the durability of military installations, millions will suffer the agonies of resource scarcity and mass displacement.[xxxii]

Since parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) began negotiations in 1992, diplomacy has attempted to address this inequity. The Kyoto Protocol (1997) introduced the concept of “differentiated responsibilities” that required developed countries adhere to legally binding targets, while demanding little of developing nations (lest their growth be stifled).[xxxiii] The U.S. protested the exemption of emerging economies and withdrew without penalty.[xxxiv] During the acrimonious Copenhagen Climate Change Conference (2009), the U.S. and the E.U. utilized “strong-arm tactics,”—including threats to cancel financial assistance—to bully developing nations into diplomatic acquiescence.[xxxv] In Durban, South Africa (2012), wealthy nations advanced a formulation that allowed for their ”escape from the binding rules” of the Kyoto Regime.[xxxvi] The Paris Agreement (2015) required even less of developed nations, only the submission of flimsy Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) that drew on the strength of “norms and expectations.”[xxxvii] Nevertheless, the U.S. withdrew from the Agreement in 2017; none of the signatories are on track to meet emission reduction targets.[xxxviii]

Past agreements have not been totally fruitless, however. Negotiations in Copenhagen, Durban and Paris each advanced the Green Climate Fund, a mechanism for wealthy nations to provide $100 billion annually for “low-emission and climate-resilient projects” in developing countries.[xxxix] Setting aside the fact that this figure is woefully insufficient, raising the modest $100 billion has proven problematic. Wealthy nations have missed several deadlines to provide funding; the U.S. and Australia reneged on their commitments.[xl] There is also the cobbled-together nature of the assistance, which is comprised of “loans, private-sector financing, and…overseas aid budgets” as opposed to straightforward grants from state treasuries.[xli] Even more discouraging is the programmatic focus on mitigation, while money earmarked for adaptation represents just 20% of the total.[xlii] The message is clear; the West cares more about halting (certain) CO2 emissions than it does about preserving lives and livelihoods in the Global South.

In the face of such an unjust predicament, what is to be done? Domestically, climate legislation must deconstruct systemic inequalities and bolster adaptation capacity for those that need it most. This can be achieved by aggressively regulating polluting industries, galvanizing economic development through green jobs creation, and investing in public infrastructure to augment resilience.[xliii] Where the public sector lags behind, the private sector can fill the gap; socially-conscious asset managers can build a business case for the profitability of emissions reduction and the long-term viability of clean energy, both of which stand to benefit communities of color.[xliv] State and local governments can do their part by investing in low-income neighborhoods; painting roads and rooftops white can significantly lower temperatures, while urban gardens can reduce heat and store rainwater.[xlv] Every step of the way, communities of color should be centered in the decision-making process through consultation, collaboration and partnership.   

At the international level, the U.S. must shoulder its historic responsibility and engage in responsible climate diplomacy. The U.S. should rejoin the Paris Agreement and revive the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate (MEF), both of which must then convene with greater urgency.[xlvi] Washington should champion a version of the “Climate Club” (postulated by Nobel laureate William Nordhaus) whereby member nations – those undertaking ambitious emissions reductions – enjoy benefits (e.g., military and trade) while nonparticipants suffer penalties (e.g., tariffs).[xlvii] To address the global north-south divide, robust allowances (e.g., discounted membership, reduced penalties, etc.) could be offered to qualifying nations. After the U.S. satisfies its Obama-era pledge to the Green Climate Fund, which was canceled by the Trump Administration, it should join European countries in doubling its commitment.[xlviii] The U.S. should also create a foreign assistance program—a climate-focused Marshall Plan—to inject capital into the Global South. This would help vulnerable nations boost adaptation capacities, “leapfrog fossil fuels” and decarbonize their economies.[xlix] Given its role as a key contributor to the climate crisis, the U.S. has a moral obligation to spearhead equitable solutions.

Climate change is a story of compounding injustices; the people least responsible for global warming will pay the steepest price. That is why climate policymakers must keep vulnerable populations top of mind by identifying and dismantling the structural elements of environmental racism. With expanded protections to safeguard Black and Brown lives and livelihoods and sustained investment in communities of color, policymakers can create a society that is more prepared, adaptable, and egalitarian. Washington should refuse calls to abdicate its international responsibility to address the climate threat. Instead, the U.S. must leverage its wealth and influence to drive global emissions reduction and advance adaptation capabilities in developing nations. In doing so, Washington would go a long way towards redeeming itself for the discriminatory nature of past climate diplomacy. Only by prioritizing human security and confronting environmental racism can policymakers realize a form of climate justice. 


[i] Joshua Busby, “Warming World,” Foreign Affairs, June 14, 2018, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2018-06-14/warming-world (accessed August 10, 2020).

[ii] Structural racism is “a system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity.” See: “11 Terms You Should Know to Better Understand Structural Racism,” The Aspen Institute, July 11, 2016, https://www.aspeninstitute.org/blog-posts/structural-racism-definition/ (accessed August 19, 2020).

[iii] Human Security, as defined by the UN General Assembly (2012), relates to the “survival, livelihood and dignity of [people]” especially across economic, health, and environmental dimensions. See: Oscar Gomez and Des Gasper, “Human Security, A Thematic Guidance Note,” United Nations Development Program, 2013, http://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/human_security_guidance_note_r-nhdrs.pdf (accessed August 12, 2020).

[iv] Christopher W. Tessum, et al., “Inequity in consumption of goods and services adds to racial–ethnic disparities in air pollution exposure,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 116, no. 13 (March 2019): 6001-6006, https://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/116/13/6001.full.pdf (accessed August 14, 2020);  For more on indigenous suffering, see: Sophie Yeo, “Five ways climate change harms indigenous people,” Climate Home News, July 28, 2014, https://www.climatechangenews.com/2014/07/28/five-ways-climate-change-harms-indigenous-people/  (accessed August 14, 2020).

[v] The majority of African Americans live in the South. See: Tim Persinko, “Black Population Concentrated in South: Census,” NBC Washington, September 30, 2011, https://www.nbcwashington.com/news/local/black-population-concentrated-in-south-census/1886668/ (accessed August 15, 2020). 

[vi] Trymaine Lee, “Cancer Alley: Big Industry, Big Problems,” MSNBC, http://www.msnbc.com/interactives/geography-of-poverty/se.html (accessed August 14, 2020).

[vii] Brian Bienkowski, “Toxic Coal Ash Hits Poor and Minority Communities Hardest,” Environmental Health News, January 14, 2016, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/toxic-coal-ash-hits-poor-and-minority-communities-hardest/ (accessed August 13, 2020).

[viii] Phil Mckenna, “EPA Rejects Civil Rights Complaint Over Alabama Coal Ash Dump,” Inside Climate News, March 7, 2018, https://insideclimatenews.org/news/07032018/epa-uniontown-coal-ash-civil-rights-ruling-landfill-alabama-tva-kingston-spill (accessed August 16, 2020).

[ix] Megan Mayhew Bergman, “’They chose us because we were rural and poor’: when environmental racism and climate change collide,” The Guardian, March 8, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/mar/08/climate-changed-racism-environment-south (accessed August 9, 2020).

[x] Tracy Fernandez Rysavy and André Floyd, “People of Color are on the Front Lines of the Climate Crisis,” Green America, April 25, 2017, https://www.greenamerica.org/climate-justice-all/people-color-are-front-lines-climate-crisis (accessed August 16, 2020).

[xi] Julie Sze, Environmental Justice in a Moment of Danger, (Oakland: University of California Press, 2020), 30-32.

[xii] Environmental racism is “the distribution of environmental risks (exposures) and rewards (amenities) in a socially stratified way (via race and class).” See: Julie Sze, Environmental Justice, 10; “Environmental Justice & Environmental Racism,” Green Action, accessed August 12, 2020, http://greenaction.org/what-is-environmental-justice/.

[xiii] R. Dean Hardy, et al., “Racial Coastal Formation: The environmental injustice of colorblind adaptation planning for sea-level rise,” Geoforum 87 (December 2017): 62-77, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0016718517302944 (accessed August 13, 2020).

[xiv] Thomas Frank, “Flooding Disproportionately Harms Black Neighborhoods,” Scientific American, June 2, 2020, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/flooding-disproportionately-harms-black-neighborhoods/ (August 11, 2020).

[xv] Sarah Kaplan, “Climate change is also a racial justice problem” The Washington Post, June 29, 2020,  https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-solutions/2020/06/29/climate-change-racism/ (accessed August 10, 2020).

[xvi] Rysavy and Floyd, “People of Color.”

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Adelle Thomas and Rueanna Haynes, “Black Lives Matter: the link between climate change and racial justice,” Climate Analytics, June 22, 2020, https://climateanalytics.org/blog/2020/black-lives-matter-the-link-between-climate-change-and-racial-justice/ (August 18, 2020).

[xix] The paradigms that govern International Relations (e.g., realism, liberalism, and constructivism) are rooted in discourse that favors Europe and the West. The invented binaries of “developed” vs. “undeveloped,” “modern” vs. “primitive,” and “civilized” vs. “uncivilized” are racist constructions. Most “great powers” are majority-white states, sitting atop a self-serving and arbitrarily-constructed hierarchy. For more, see: Kelebogile Zvobgo and Meredith Loken, “Why Race Matters in International Relations, Foreign Policy, June 19, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/06/19/why-race-matters-international-relations-ir/ (accessed August 15, 2020); Gurkminder Bhambra, et al., “Why is Mainstream International Relations Blind to Racism,” Foreign Policy, July 3, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/07/03/why-is-mainstream-international-relations-ir-blind-to-racism-colonialism/ (accessed August 15, 2020).

[xx] Duncan Clark, “Which nations are most responsible for climate change,” The Guardian, April 21, 2011, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/apr/21/countries-responsible-climate-change (accessed August 9, 2020).

[xxi] The terms “developed” and “undeveloped” form a racist binary (see note 17). However, their usage here is necessary to frame the discussion regarding climate negotiations. See: Mohamed Adow, “Climate Debt: What the West Owes the Rest,” Foreign Affairs, April 13, 2020, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/world/2020-04-13/climate-debt (accessed May 15, 2020).  

[xxii] Justin Gillis and Nadja Popovich, “The U.S. is the Biggest Carbon Polluter in History. It Just Walked Away From the Paris Climate Deal,” The New York Times, June 1, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/06/01/climate/us-biggest-carbon-polluter-in-history-will-it-walk-away-from-the-paris-climate-deal.html (accessed August 13, 2020).

[xxiii] This figure classifies Brazil, China, India, Nigeria and South Africa as middle and low-income countries. All per-capita measurements are on an annual basis. See: Adow, “Climate Debt.”  

[xxiv] See: Anne-Sophie Brandlin, “The global injustice of the climate crisis,” DW, August 28, 2019, https://www.dw.com/en/the-global-injustice-of-the-climate-crisis-food-insecurity-carbon-emissions-nutrients-a-49966854/a-49966854 (accessed August 16, 2020).

[xxv] Ibid.  

[xxvi] Somini Sengupta and Julfikar Ali Manik, “A Quarter of Bangladesh Is Flooded. Millions Have Lost Everything,” The New York Times, July 30, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/30/climate/bangladesh-floods.html (accessed August 16, 2020).

[xxvii] The term “Global South” is inherently problematic. See notes 17 and 19. 

[xxviii] Somini Sengupta, “Hotter, Drier, Hungrier: How Global Warming Punishes the World’s Poorest,” The New York Times, March 12, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/12/climate/kenya-drought.html (accessed August 15, 2020)

[xxix] Bryan Denton and Somini Sengupta, “India’s Ominous Future: Too Little Water, or Far Too Much,” The New York Times, November 25, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/11/25/climate/india-monsoon-drought.html (accessed August 17, 2020).

[xxx] Sepehr Eslami, et al., “Tidal amplifcation and salt intrusion in the Mekong Delta driven by anthropogenic sediment starvation,” Scientific Reports 9 (2019): 18746, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-55018-9.   

[xxxi] Adow, “Climate Debt.”

[xxxii] Alex Ward, ““All hell breaking loose”: How the Pentagon is planning for climate change,” Vox, February 24, 2020, https://www.vox.com/2020/2/24/21145687/climate-change-usa-military-book-interview (accessed August 20, 2020).

[xxxiii] Todd Stern, “The Paris Agreement and Its Future,” The Brookings Institute, October 2018, https://www.brookings.edu/research/the-paris-agreement-and-its-future/ (accessed April 27, 2020).

[xxxiv] “Kyoto Protocol Fast Facts,” CNN, April 8, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2013/07/26/world/kyoto-protocol-fast-facts/index.html (accessed August 15, 2020); Riley Beggin, “The last time a US president dumped a global climate deal,” ABC News, June 1, 2017, https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/time-us-president-dumped-global-climate-deal/story?id=47771005 (accessed August 15, 2020).

[xxxv] During negotiations at Copenhagen, U.S. Secretary of State reportedly treated the leaders of small island states like “naughty schoolchildren.” See: https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/climate-change/rich-nations-accused-of-climate-change-bullying-6268679.html; Adow, “Climate Debt.”

[xxxvi] Adow, “Climate Debt.”

[xxxvii] Stern, “The Paris Agreement.”

[xxxviii] Catherine Benson Wahlen, “No Country on Path Compatible with Paris Climate Targets, 2020 Climate Index Warns,” International Institute for Sustainable Development, December 12, 2019, https://sdg.iisd.org/news/no-country-on-path-compatible-with-paris-climate-targets-2020-climate-index-warns/ (accessed June 17, 2020).

[xxxix] Liane Shalatek, “Why the Green Climate Fund must be replenished to remain the central multilateral channel for the collective climate finance goal,” Heinrich Böll Stiftung, June 12, 2019, https://us.boell.org/en/2019/06/12/why-green-climate-fund-must-be-replenished-remain-central-multilateral-channel-collective; “A deal in Durban,” The Economist, December 17, 2011, https://www.economist.com/science-and-technology/2011/12/17/a-deal-in-durban (accessed August 10, 2020); “Green Climate Fund,” UN Environment Program,  https://www.unenvironment.org/about-un-environment/funding-and-partnerships/green-climate-fund#:~:text=The%20Green%20Climate%20Fund’s%20(GCF,development%20on%20our%20home%20planet (accessed August 19, 2020).

[xl] Alister Doyle and Megan Rowling, “US and Japan miss deadline on cash for UN green climate fund,” Reuters, April 30, 2015, https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-climatechange-finance-un/us-and-japan-miss-deadline-on-cash-for-un-green-climate-fund-idUSKBN0NL1RN20150430; Adow, “Climate Debt.” 

[xli] Ibid.

[xlii] Ibid.

[xliii] “Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to Create a Green New Deal,” H.Res.109, 116th Congress (2020), https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-resolution/109/text (accessed August 15, 2020).

[xliv] Rebecca Henderson, “The Unlikely Environmentalists,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2020, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/world/2020-04-13/unlikely-environmentalists (accessed July 15, 2020). 

[xlv] Kathy Baughman McLeod, “Building a Resilient Planet,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2020, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2020-04-13/building-resilient-planet (accessed July 15, 2020); This would be distinct from traditional urban development, which is often perpetuates racial inequality through racist policies and practices. See: Dana Budds, “How Urban Design Perpetuates Racial Inequality–And What We Can Do About It,” Fast Company, July 18, 2016, https://www.fastcompany.com/3061873/how-urban-design-perpetuates-racial-inequality-and-what-we-can-do-about-it (accessed August 19, 2020); for more on antiracist development practices, see: Margery Austin Turner and Solomon Greene, “Reimagining an Antiracist America – Starting with Our Neighborhoods,” Urban Institute, June 18, 2020, https://www.urban.org/urban-wire/reimagining-antiracist-america-starting-our-neighborhoods (accessed August 17, 2020).

[xlvi] John Podesta and Todd Stern, “A Foreign Policy for the Climate,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2020, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-04-13/foreign-policy-climate (accessed July 15, 2020).

[xlvii] William Nordhaus, “The Climate Club,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2020, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-04-10/climate-club (accessed May 30, 2020).  

[xlviii] Podesta, “A Foreign Policy.”

[xlix] Adow, “Climate Debt.”

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