By Noah Smith, RightsViews staff writer and graduate student in the Human Rights Studies program at Columbia University
On October 28, Climate Refugees and the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University brought together experts in environmental racism, indigenous rights, climate science and racial justice to discuss the two fundamental issues of our time: race and climate change. The panelists offered their expert opinions on the intersectional relationship between race and climate change and discussed solutions to mitigate these issues moving forward.
The climate crisis has disproportionately impacted marginalized populations, many of whom may be displaced or forced to migrate, because of years of unequal access to opportunities and gaps in human rights. Panelist Dr. Ingrid Waldron, a noted sociologist, has coined this disproportionate impact as ‘Environmental Racism’ which she defined as ‘‘a disproportionate location and exposure for indigenous, racialized communities and poor white communities to contamination from polluting industries and other environmentally hazardous activities.’’
The panel further articulated the delineation of ‘Environmental Racism’ by discussing the COVID-19 pandemic, George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent protests for racial justice, which correspondingly exemplified the effects of two divergent crises that have disproportionate impacts on Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) because of systemic unequal access to opportunities. In 2020 the JAMA Network Open, which is part of the Journal of the American Medical Association, published a report which elucidated that in the United States Black mothers are most adversely affected by pregnancy risks associated with climate change and Black communities face heightened risks of air pollution. Upon revealing these startling realities, the panelists state that race appears to be a greater risk of exposure to environmental pollutants than poverty.
Panelist Professor Philip G. Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, discussed a 2019 report on Climate Change and Poverty, which found that developing nations will bear 75% of the financial costs and losses associated with the climate crisis, despite only contributing 10% of carbon dioxide emissions. Alston further asserted that one could argue that ‘‘the whole phenomenon of climate change is driven by racism because it’s outsourced, and the dominant white elites are going to be able to protect themselves and they do not care about the terrible consequences that are being predicted because they will hit other groups.’’
Given the current bleak narrative, the panel offered future solutions to assuage the concerning trend we see regarding the current crisis. Panelist Dr. Lucky Tran, a science communicator based at Columbia University, spoke of the need to fight for communities harmed by bad science policies. Stating that there is a broad misunderstanding by science advocates who operate under the belief that facts alone are enough to convince individuals that climate change as well as racial inequality are real and pose existential threats to our society. He pointed out that this line of advocacy is not enough stating that ‘‘facts are not enough, we are talking about values. We’re talking about real lives, we’re talking about stories, and we have to do that a lot better.’’ This emphasis on storytelling as part of the solution to the climate crisis has been utilized by many science advocates in recent years.
In fact, I recently watched a documentary titled America’s First Climate Change Refugees, which told the stories of communities across the US who are now threatened by rising sea-levels resulting from climate change. The individual voices showcased in this documentary are incredibly powerful and exemplify how storytelling can help us address complicated issues such as climate change.
Furthermore, panelist Dr. Carlton Waterhouse, an international expert on environmental law, spoke about environmental justice and suggested we think of it in three frames: distributive, procedural, and justice as recognition. This framework of conceptualizing environmental justice recognizes that there is an unequal distribution of pollutant sources in society, a lack of recognition of marginalized voices in government and environment policy procedural processes, as well as a lack of recognition of what marginalized communities need and deserve.
Actualizing these frames of justice should be a priority and as stated by Dr. Waterhouse recognizing ‘‘inequitable distribution of pollution, the harm that comes from it, and the benefits that are derived from it, that to me is the core of environmental justice.’’