What is Environmental Justice?

The climate change crisis has grown into a global effort, and it is difficult to open the news without reading about pollution, CO2 emissions, or global warming. While the Coronavirus is altering life around the world, thousands protest for racial equality and an end to systematic oppression. Climate change, COVID-19, and racial injustice appear unrelated, but find common ground in the environmental justice movement. Environmental justice is the equal involvement of people from all backgrounds in the making of environmental laws. Due to inaction, COVID-19 has exacerbated environmental injustice in low-income communities and communities of color.

Environmental Justice Pre-COVID

The consequences of ignoring environmental issues in low-income communities are enormous, from the Flint Water Crisis in Michigan, Hurricane Katrina’s in New Orleans, the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota, and the Mauna Kea telescope in Hawaii. Low-income communities are largely ignored by environmental legislation, so they suffer from weak environmental infrastructure and protection. The examples above are all environmental injustices, a category which includes any disparity in access to clean water and air, transportation, healthy food, and safe housing. For example, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe requires access to Lake Oahe for clean water, but the US government approved the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline to carry oil through four states. This pipeline would restrict the Standing Rock tribe’s access to Lake Oahe and possibly pollute the lake. The tribe and supporters protested the construction of this pipeline, but President Trump has allowed construction to continue. The Dakota Access Pipeline is an example of environmental injustice by the disproportionate struggles that marginalized communities face to access clean water and other resources. 

Environmental Justice, Low-Income Communities, and Coronavirus

Although environmental injustice precedes COVID-19, the Coronavirus has heightened environmental injustice’s impact on low-income communities. People living in low-income communities are predisposed to serious underlying health conditions. These health conditions are due to the many industrial developments that are placed in low-income communities. Industrial developments like highways and factories release an enormous amount of air pollution into these communities. There are environmental regulations to protect these communities, like the Clean Air Act of 1963, but air pollution continues to disproportionately harm low-income communities. Further, the Trump administration is using the Coronavirus crisis to permanently suspend environmental regulations such as the Clean Air Act. Low-income communities have a weaker political voice and lack comprehensive legislation to protect them from environmental injustice. Ignorant legislation exacerbates COVID-19 in low-income communities, because studies show that high levels of pollution are directly related to death rates from COVID-19. Low-income communities suffer from environmental disregard because they are more likely to die of COVID-19 due to air pollution, but less likely to have the resources to be treated.

Environmental Justice, Communities of Color, and Coronavirus

Racial injustice in America is directly tied to environmental injustice, and black communities are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 due to inadequate resources. Race and class are directly connected due to our country’s continuing history of systematic racism in all aspects of society. “An African American child is three times more likely to go into the emergency room for an asthma attack than a white child,” due to the large amounts of industrial developments near black communities. “78% of all African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant,” says the NAACP in their report ‘Coal Blooded: Putting Profits Before People.’ African Americans have the highest poverty rate of all racial and ethnic groups in America. Coronavirus is only heightening this wealth disparity by taking a disproportionate toll on black communities, and environmental injustice exacerbates the impact. Black communities are less likely to have access to adequate healthcare, but predisposed to health problems that will magnify COVID. In addition, 1 in 13 African Americans cannot vote due to felony charges, which diminishes the number of black voters. The environmental justice movement is needed to provide a voice to communities who are not heard, with the purpose of passing effective and supportive climate legislation.

Why Does Environmental Justice Matter?

Past environmental justice legislation includes Senator Cory Booker’s Environmental Justice Act, which aims to strengthen environmental justice protections for vulnerable communities. It will expand on a 1994 Executive Order for Environmental Justice, require federal agencies to address environmental justice, and aid low-income communities in speaking up against environmental injustice. The EPA released its latest Environmental Justice Strategy in 2016. This strategy includes policy development, education, and research, as well as the implementation of Environmental Justice into all aspects of environmental protection. However, the Trump administration is defunding the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Environmental Protection Agency. The government cannot address environmental injustice without sufficient funds to do so. We cannot combat poverty, racial inequality, or climate change without considering environmental justice. It is the intersection of our world’s socioeconomic disparity with the growing climate crisis. You can help the fight for environmental justice by raising awareness and donating. Educate your friends and family, call your representative, and help organizations fighting for environmental justice.