In recent years, terms such as “climate change” and “Green New Deal” have taken center stage in public discourse. More often than not, however, the conversation — and the debate — surrounding these issues focuses principally on a future threat, the premise that we are running out of time to prevent some impending catastrophe in the years to come.
But the reality is that, when it comes to environmental catastrophe, the future is now. It’s not a forthcoming disaster that we’re trying to avoid. Environmental justice initiatives are about rectifying and combatting the disaster that has already come, from plastic pollution to loss of biodiversity to food waste.
In other words, we can speak of “environmental justice” primarily in the future tense, rather than the present, only because, for now, the impacts are disproportionately felt by marginalized communities, those who often have little power and even less of a public voice. But environmental justice doesn’t just protect the poor and disenfranchised. Because environmental justice is directly connected to public health, soon or later, environmental injustice will risk the health not just of a few, but of all, whether that risk comes in the form of additional and worsening global pandemics, of more severe and prolific natural disasters resulting from climate change, or global food and water shortages.
Yes, we share the same Earth. As humans, we have a common inheritance and a common responsibility to nurture the environment that nurtures us. But the simple fact is that the health of the environment we live in depends largely on factors that are often beyond our control, from race and ethnicity to the socioeconomic class we were born into.
Studies consistently show that persons of color are far more likely to inhabit environmentally unsafe areas.
For instance, with the advent of redlining, Black home buyers were severely restricted in where they could build or buy, usually consigned to undesirable, often heavily industrialized areas. This has contributed to significant increases in exposure to industrial emissions and contamination, such as air pollution, hazardous waste, and toxic lead exposures for minority communities. Additionally, the proximity of these homes to industrial developments reduces property values. This results in lower tax revenues and, consequently, fewer funds available for environmental cleanup and sustainable infrastructure development in these impoverished and highly industrialized areas.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the reality that more than 40% of Americans are exposed to unsafe drinking water, with communities of color, the poor, and immigrants bearing the greatest risks. The infamous Flint water crisis is only one of a litany of examples in which marginalized communities were exposed to toxic levels of lead in the water supply due to aging and crumbling water pipes.
A Pervasive Problem
The inequitable impact of environmental injustice has direct and significant impacts on property values and contaminant exposures in marginalized communities. However, the risks certainly don’t end there. Environmental injustice is connected to severe public health consequences — consequences that are not simply confined to the communities from which they originate.
For example, toxic lead exposure in the water supply is having profound impacts on children, including delayed growth, behavioral and learning challenges, and reduced IQ. While the long-term impacts are not yet certain, children facing these challenges are typically at higher risk for low education attainment and unemployment or underemployment. This places a significant burden on families and communities because with low education and high unemployment, the responsibility for supporting these individuals may well fall on the family, the community, or the government.
In addition to these broader socioeconomic impacts, environmental justice is also strongly linked to public health. Recent months have provided a stark example of the particularly devastating impact COVID-19 has had on communities of color. A recent study found, for example, that higher levels of air pollution in minority communities significantly increase the risk of contracting coronavirus or suffering complications from it. And that can inflame the spread of the virus far beyond the borders of these more vulnerable communities.
Pollution isn’t just increasing the risks of respiratory illnesses and coronavirus infection, it’s also compromising eye health. Greenhouse gas emissions are increasing the amount of ultraviolet (UV) light entering the lower levels of the atmosphere. Without the consistent use of protective UV-blocking eyewear, your risk of eye injury and vision loss due to UV light exposure is greater than ever before.
What Is to Be Done?
There are no easy solutions when it comes to the fight for environmental justice. As has been shown, because the problem itself is systemic, efforts to resolve it must be equally comprehensive. For example, initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions must be incorporated throughout the economy, from industry to manufacturing to transportation. Hydrogen fuel cell technology, for instance, is showing tremendous promise as an alternative to fossil fuels, and is already being explored for use in the “clean” trucking industry.
Another important strategy is the effort to diversify processes of energy production and consumption, such as the combined use of solar and hydrogen fuel cell power supplies. The result is a significant decrease in greenhouse gas emissions. This not only reduces air, earth, and water pollution, but also protects the ozone layer, slowing, or reversing, global warming,
Environmental justice is more than a political talking point. It is not a future goal to aspire to. It’s an urgent need for today. Not only do the impacts of environmental contamination disproportionately affect vulnerable communities, but they put the whole of society at risk.
Indiana Lee, Contributor
Indiana Lee is a professional writer who resides in the Pacific Northwest. In her spare time, she enjoys hiking with her two dogs and creating. Follow her Twitter account to learn more about her.