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Environmental Injustice: Connecting Race, Class, and Climate Change

Takeaways from a talk by William J. Barber III

By Allison Houtz, AmeriCorps Project Conserve Communications and Education Associate

Photo by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Two of the biggest issues in our country today are more interconnected than you may think.

Climate change and racial inequity are at the forefront of news channels, social media, and our everyday conversations with others. In the lives of those who are privileged though, these issues may not be as pressing. This is because in the United States, race and class are highly connected to how severely someone experiences the impacts of climate change.

What’s the connection?

Environmental and climate justice advocate and scholar, William Barber III, presented a compelling case on the relations between climate and racial justice in his recent talk, sponsored by Conserving Carolina, MountainTrue, Creation Care Alliance, and multiple local churches.

Barber discussed the implications of climate change on communities based on race and class. In particular, he addressed how the areas most likely to be impacted by climate change events such as floods, fires, and hurricanes are also the areas most likely to house the impoverished and people of color.

And even more compelling, those on the frontlines of the environmental and climate crisis contributed the least to the creation of these problems.

The undeniable facts

There are some hard facts that may be hard to swallow. Among many compelling figures offered by Barber, 78% of African-Americans live within 30 miles of a coal powerplant according to a report by the NAACP.

African-Americans are also three times as likely to die from particulate air pollution, versus the general population. This was demonstrated in a recent study by the EPA, which you can find here.

The Southeast, in particular, is expected to bear the brunt of climate change in years to come. In fact, “Nine of the 10 states that are likely to experience the worst impacts of climate change are in the South,” according to SafeHome.org.

The Southeast is also the region with the largest Black and African American populations, by a landslide.

This map demonstrates how Black and African American communities are noticeably concentrated in the Southeast.

And these communities have contributed the least to the climate crisis, specifically in terms of energy usage. Poorer communities, which are statistically dominated by people of color, consume less energy per capita than their affluent counterparts. Despite contributing the least, however, it is glaringly clear that these communities suffer the gravest consequences.

These communities are disproportionately vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, as a direct result of the systemic racial inequities imposed on their communities.

But what can you do about this injustice?

Be a part of the solution

Barber did not only present the facts. He also offered tangible solutions. Among some of his calls to action, here were the major ones:

  1. Tune in to nationwide coalition movements for environmental and climate justice including the Poor People’s Campaign and Climate Reality Project. Following these groups on social media or signing up for their newsletters are easy but impactful steps in the right direction.
  2. Learn about the 17 principles of environmental justice. Embody them and enlighten others in your community.
  3. Learn more about the history of the environmental justice movement and the distinct role North Carolina has played.

  4. Learn about Executive Order 80 and Executive Order 246 in North Carolina. Hold policymakers accountable to these standards by asking about equity and community benefits. Ask questions about the timeline for outcomes and call for a just fulfillment of these outcomes.
  5. Get in contact with William Barber III. You can follow him on social media to keep up with his advocacy, or even schedule an event similar to this one. Barber’s Twitter is @WilliamBarberJD and his Facebook is William J. Barber III.

There’s an opportunity and a window in which we can act. It’s imperative for all of us to ask ourselves if we have the will to do so.

-William J. Barber III

 Author Allison Houtz is serving as an AmeriCorps Project Conserve Communications and Education Associate with Conserving Carolina. 

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