Interconnected Struggles: Sustainability and Racial Justice

July 20, 2020

By Melanie Mason and Kaitlyn Pohly   The same structures that have landed us in the middle of our country’s current social unrest have disproportionately put people of color at risk for environmental hazards and health issues, including Covid-19. Social and environmental concerns are deeply interconnected, and those connections should inform the way that each is addressed. Sam Grant, the Executive Director of the climate activism organization stated to the New York Times that, police violence is an aspect of a broader pattern of structural violence, which the climate crisis is a manifestation of. Healing structural violence is actually in the best interest of all human beings.”   While wealthy predominantly white communities have the resources and power to fight industrial creation of environmental hazards, minority communities usually do not. Flint, Michigan knows this all too well. The predominantly Black city’s limited financial resources led to the lead poisoning of thousands of children. When there is a power plant, landfill, or waste facility to be located, communities of color are disproportionately chosen as the “sacrifice zone” in which they are located.   Minorities are more likely to be affected by environmental harms including air and water pollution, toxic substances, and unsafe food and homes:   Black, low-income Americans face the highest risk of death from the fine particle pollution emitted by power plants, according to researchers at the University of Washington and Stanford University. Power plants are more likely to be located near where people of color live. A study of Pennsylvania’s power plants and population by Food and Water Watch found that people of color make up almost half the population living within three miles of existing and proposed power plans, even though they represent only a fifth of the state population. Even upper-income communities of color were more likely to be located near an existing power plant than whites with lower incomes. Black children are lead-poisoned at more than twice the rate of white children, at every income level. To see how this plays out, we needn’t look further than our own backyard: In NYC, 80% of waste is processed in north Brooklyn, southeast Queens and the south Bronx, all minority neighborhoods. This brings a constant flow of diesel trucks through these neighborhoods, contributing to air pollution and respiratory health issues.   The Connection Between Covid-19 & Environmental Racism   *************************************************************************************** “The disparities for Covid-19 really mirror the disparities that New York City’s environmental justice communities have faced for decades…Similarly to climate change, Covid-19 is really acting as a threat multiplier: exacerbating a lot of these inequalities that are due to environmental racism in New York City.” Priya Mulgaonkar, a resiliency planner for the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance   ************************************************************************************** Covid-19 has multiplied the social and environmental hazards faced by people of color. This map, which shows the higher impact of Covid-19 in black and brown communities, mirrors the neighborhoods with higher rates of environmental health hazards. Polluting infrastructure, such as waste facilities and power plants, create air quality problems. Poor air quality causes health conditions that make people more vulnerable to respiratory illnesses, which, in turn, makes them more vulnerable to Covid-19.   Where do New York and the federal government stand today on environmental justice policy?   In 2019, New York passed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (the Climate Act). It includes some of the most rigorous targets in the US, including a transition to carbon free electricity by 2040 and a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 85% from 1990 levels by 2050.   In June 2020, the NY State Energy and Research Development Authority (NYSERDA), along with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, announced new initiatives to address environmental justice and make headway towards the goals outlined in the Climate Act: More than $10 million will go to help underserved New Yorkers access clean, affordable, and reliable solar energy; the NY-Sun initiative will provide grants of up to $200,000 to address market barriers preventing solar energy development in disadvantaged communities. This ensures solar can play a role in improving the health of these communities. The State also formed a Climate Justice Working Group, with representation from environmental justice communities statewide, and the State Departments of Environmental Conservation, Health, Labor and New York State Energy and Research Development Authority (NYSERDA). Right now, the Environmental Justice for All Act is circulating in Congress. The bill, introduced by Representatives Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz) and Donald McEachin (D-VA), proposes taxes on oil, gas, and coal companies to be put into a Federal Energy Transition Economic Development Assistance Fund. The Fund would support communities and workers in the transition to a clean energy economy. The bill expands the legal rights of disadvantaged communities and creates a federal grants program. The results of the upcoming elections may determine the potential for this, or a similar bill, to pass.   Environmentalism is intersectional. As legislators craft solutions to the climate crisis and pollution problems, it is incumbent upon them to ensure those solutions are just to the people who have been harmed. The transition to a sustainable and resilient future requires the health and well-being of all lands and communities.