Problems of Our World: The Connection Between Climate Change and Racial Injustice
Updated: Oct 11, 2021
by Ricardo Gurango
The past two decades have been a chaotic, concerning mix of world issues. That is a truth that we cannot ignore. Looking at the big picture, there are two significant world problems that are massively affecting us all today, and will continue to affect our lives and those of future generations.
Racial injustice is one of these big issues. It’s something that is destroying countries from within, and something that social activists and allies have been fighting hard against. For thousands of years, people have been judged based on their origin or the color of their skin. Fortunately, some pretty amazing social breakthroughs have taken place throughout history, as the world slowly discovers that oppression/segregation based on race is unjust. But it is not enough. People have continued to suffer and lose their lives to the ever-present injustice against BIPOC (Black people, Indigenous people, and People of Color) communities, whether that be through police brutality, systemic racism, or instances of prejudice in day to day life.
That being said, there’s another massive problem that can’t be ignored for much longer either. If racism is going to tear apart the world from within its core, then climate change is going to destroy it from the outside in. Climate change and environmental instability is another global issue that is already affecting the lives of millions of people all over the world. The health of the environment is rapidly decaying. Greenland and Antarctica together have lost 6.3 trillion tons of ice since 1994. The oceans are rising, and with them, the temperatures (Washington Post). It’s safe to assume that almost everyone living in Washington during the summer of 2021 will always remember the massive heat waves that took place, disrupting the balance of not just the communities of Washington, but all over the states on the West Coast. Earth is currently losing over 1.2 trillion tons of ice per year (Washington Post), and it’s not going to get any better. Our children and any future generations are going to live on a broken planet if action isn’t taken immediately.
So we have two very pressing matters for the world to deal with: racism and climate change. Two world issues with plenty of available scientific evidence to support them. But what has remained under the radar is the fact that these two problems are a lot more connected than you may think.
To understand this connection in local communities you must first understand the term Environmental Racism. In a paper by Robert Bullard, a collaborating researcher for the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, Environmental Racism is referred to as ”any policy, practice, or directive that differentially affects or disadvantages (whether intended or unintended) individuals, groups, or communities based on race or color.”
Simply put, BIPOC communities are disproportionately affected by current environmental policies, often because they are not well represented in the policy making process. Instances of environmental racism can be found all over the world, but, believe it or not, a lot of it is happening right in our own backyards.
In 2014, Puget Sound Energy proposed the construction of a Liquefied Natural Gas plant in Tacoma, WA. The planned site of the power plant was right next to where the sovereign nation of the Indigenous Puyallup Tribe was located. In 2016 construction of the power plant began, without any permission from the Puyallup Tribe , even though the construction of the plant violates an 1854 treaty with the Puyallup Tribe.
This is a major example of environmental racism at a local level. It’s dangerously risky to build something like this so close to a large community. Liquefied natural gas (LNG) is a fossil fuel that will negatively affect the Puyallup Community if there was an accident or leak at the plant and fuel wastes made their way into the water supply. And even if you take accidents and leaks out of consideration, the power plant itself spews smoke and toxic fumes into the air, proving that its very existence is detrimental to any communities around the plant. The lives of people living around the plant are forever impacted by the terrible air conditions, and will suffer from illnesses and health conditions due to them. These decisions are being made by governments all around the country, but who do they really affect? The BIPOC communities. These minorities are the ones who would suffer the most if these decisions went south, and yet they are given very, very little input on them. The Puyallup tribe, with the support of Indigenous communities all around them, resisted the decision by Puget Sound Energy. They fought not necessarily because of the plant’s construction itself, but because they have been given such limited input and been represented so little in the government. Since the beginning of the plant’s construction, climate activists and Water Warriors have marched and protested, only to be met by violent police forces.
To understand the implications of this situation, we have to visualize its future. What would happen if this project - and all of the many similar projects around the country - successfully initiated? Greenhouse gases created by the processing of fossil fuels would rapidly fill the atmosphere. The climate temperatures would rise even faster than before. These power plants can cause accidents - what would happen if there was a leak and these hazardous fossil fuels leaked into the water supply, like they have done so many times before? Yes, our balanced environment would cease to exist. Yes, the environment would fall.
But who suffers first? Who would suffer the worst?
The answer is the Indigenous peoples whose land is targeted as a site for these plants to be built. The answer is the communities of Black people and People of Color who live in places where these big oil and processing factories are built, and who will suffer from toxic air quality and unhealthy water supply. These populations are not being represented in law and in the government, ultimately resulting in their communities being the target for these big companies to build their pipes and plants. It’s not a coincidence. It’s systemic racism overlapping with climate issues.
This is a very complicated but obvious example of systemic racism within environmental problems. Policies, practices, and directives that we previously saw as just dangerous to the environment are especially dangerous and catastrophic toward BIPOC communities.
But it’s not too late to fight back.
Very recently, the Indigenous people alongside environmental activists went to court against Puget Sound Energy. On April 12th to 23rd, 2021, the Puyallup Tribe of Indians
challenged Puget Sound Energy and their permits for the Tacoma LNG facility in a hearing before the PCH (Pollution Control Hearings) Board. If they are successful in their appeal, Puget Sound Clean Air Agency would be required to conduct a new environmental analysis and permitting process in order for PSE to operate the facility. At the time of this article’s writing, the results of the appeal are pending, but you can receive up-to-date news here:
Racial injustice and environmental issues overlap in ways that you may not have thought of before. When we vote, protest, and resist against policies and companies that are degrading the environment, we are also protesting against racial injustice. It is critical that we stand up to these powers and stand up for both racial and climate justice. These are two massive problems that we need to address. Solving both may be more simple than we think.