Poor and marginalised people bear the brunt of climate change

Tackling environmental collapse is a matter of class, racial and gender justice, writes Jori Hamilton

April 2, 2019 · 8 min read
marcovdz / Flickr

Climate change often posited as a problem in which we are all complicit — a defect of humanity. This isn’t the case.We know that carbon emissions and the greenhouse effect are to blame for the widespread changes that our planet has begun to see. Over and over again, we hear reports of the real and devastating havoc that climate change is likely to wreak upon the world, as temperatures continue to rise. We hear reports regarding rising sea levels flooding major metropolitan areas and powerful wildfires destroying thousands of homes. Likewise, we hear about blistering summer heat and blizzards in unexpected areas of the globe.

The brunt of blame for these disastrous changes can be placed on one group: the rich. Economic inequality damages the environment because the 1 percent cannot reel in environmentally damaging behavior. Catastrophic corporate practices like wreckless pollution, large-scale factory farming, and fracking are destroying environments, displacing and killing wildlife, and increasing the speed at which climate change is affecting our planet.

And the law permits it. Environmental law in the US, for instance, is crumbling due to the influence of powerful lobbyists and the disdain the Trump administration has for the EPA. Many in the U.K. blame Brexit on the desires of corporate influencers to escape stringent environmental regulations. People in China face water shortages and shocking levels of air pollution due to practically nonexistent environmental oversight — though that is slowly changing now that it is beginning to have serious effects on their economy.

These facts — the economical impacts of pollution — are what make the headlines. What we often do not hear much about is the particularly severe impact these issues are having on lower-income neighborhoods, even within the most well-developed countries. All too frequently, marginalized communities in poor neighborhoods are experiencing the brunt of a changing climate’s negative effects. These communities lack the resources to spare themselves from the injustice brought upon them by capitalistic policies and corporate powerhouses.

Environmental justice issues are a serious concern in many communities, not only in the UK but across the globe. The prevalence of these issues can be linked to an ingrained system of classism and racism, where poorer and often minority communities are disproportionately impacted by environmental pollution. These communities are at a far greater risk of negative health outcomes that could have serious consequences.

Natural capital and environmental justice

Multiple studies have linked these marginalized peoples to more significant health issues related to environmental concerns. For instance, one study out of Yale University found evidence to support a profoundly widening gap in racial and economic composition when it comes to air pollution levels. Poor communities and those comprised predominantly of racial minorities experienced substantially higher exposure to air pollution due to increased particulate matter when compared to more affluent, white neighborhoods nearby.

Studies based out of the UK have found that poorer communities also tend to live within lower quality natural environments. These communities have fewer trees, parks, and wild areas, which can reduce the biodiversity and overall resilience of the area they live. Not only are these communities often experiencing some of the worst negative pollution impacts but also the fewest positive environmental amenities and mitigating factors.  

Unfortunately, addressing issues of environmental justice can be difficult in court systems due to policy issues and a lack of political motivation for change. The UK recently came under scrutiny by the UN for making the fight for environmental justice incredibly difficult for the average citizen. These obstacles are placed by design in an attempt to quieten public discontent about poor business practices and the changing climate of the Earth. Regrettably, this struggle is experienced by many advocating for eco-friendly policies in multiple countries.

The curious case of Flint, Michigan, USA

Perhaps one of the starkest examples of the serious impacts on marginalized communities in developed countries has taken place in the town of Flint, Michigan in the US. Starting back in the spring of 2014 the city began switching its water supply location in a cost-savings effort. Within a short period, citizens were complaining about poor drinking water, as well as illnesses associated with drinking it. Government officials refused to acknowledge the issue until the fall of 2015 and didn’t publicly address the matter until early 2016, causing a public outcry and deterioration of government trust.

Flint is one of the poorest cities in the state of Michigan and perhaps even the entire US. Nearly 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and upwards of 50 percent is African American. The protracted water crisis — which is still ongoing to date — has cost the city significantly as businesses have pulled out of the community and many new organizations choose to settle elsewhere. As of late 2018, about 75 percent of a new waterline was complete.

Across the US water pollution and supply issues abound; by 2050 nearly 70 percent of US counties could face water shortage problems due to population growth, economic activity, and climate change if current consumption rates remain consistent. The EPA estimates that it will take over $91 billion to properly upgrade and maintain water and wastewater systems across the nation. Roughly a third of this money was funded, likely going to wealthier municipalities that are able to afford cost-matching avenues.

The Alberta Tar Fields

Another case study of marginalized communities taking the brunt of environmental degradation takes place in the Alberta tar fields of Alberta, Canada. The tar fields have become a hot topic issue as the Canadian government and multinational corporations work to develop them for their valuable fossil fuel products. Due to the nature of the soil composition and fossil fuels location, extraction is messy, pollutant heavy, and extremely environmentally detrimental.

The environment — a UNESCO world heritage site for its floral and faunal diversity—- is not the only loser in the tar field extraction process. Members of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation have lived in the area since time immemorial and stand to lose a significant chunk of historically important lands. Tribal leaders and community activists link this power grab by the Canadian government to a long line of tribal marginalization and societal injustice.

Beyond losing an area of cultural significance, First Peoples in the areas are also bearing the brunt of the health-related impacts of fossil fuel extraction as well. Water quality in nearby towns has been impacted and reported to reek of methane, but little has been done to address the issue. Likewise, some small towns directly affected by the tar fields have experienced rising rates of rare and difficult-to-treat cancers.

Marginalized communities are far likely to bear the brunt of the environmental impacts associated with development and resource extraction. These effects cause serious health risks and warrant substantial concern regarding environmental justice in many nations. Unless we can begin to hold the greedy corporate elite responsible for their business practices and shift to greener policies, we will not be able to stem the destruction that will continue to be wrecked by pollution and climate change.

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