Environmental justice is the notion that treatment of the environment has a direct impact on the lives and well-being of its people. Therefore, in order to promote the flourishing of human beings, we have a moral duty to take care of the environment and do what we can to prevent environmental disasters like climate change or other destructive uses of natural resources.
Environmental racism pertains to the ways communities of color are particularly at risk of being harmed by environmental concerns. Three prime examples are Hurricane Katrina, the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Flint water crisis.
Hurricane Katrina, which hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, is widely considered to be one of the most destructive natural disasters in US history. It hit particularly hard in New Orleans, Louisiana, which has a majority Black population. People of color, particularly Black people, are disproportionately impacted by generational poverty for many reasons, including the legacy of US slavery and lack of access to resources like education and healthcare. As a result, Black residents of New Orleans are often forced to live in lower-lying areas without adequate disaster prevention infrastructure because these are simply cheaper places to live. These areas are more susceptible to flooding and other negative impacts from hurricanes like release of toxic waste products into the air. Additionally, many people of color in the city were unable to heed evacuation warnings because they lacked things like transportation or money for a hotel. This meant they had to weather the storm from their homes, which put them at greater risk for the immediate dangers from the storm, like flooding and falling trees or debris. Consequently, casualties among this demographic were higher than those in whiter, more affluent neighborhoods of New Orleans. Many communities of color have continued to face difficulty in the aftermath of Katrina, and others have been pushed out of the city altogether because their neighborhoods are no longer habitable.
Another example is the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. In 2016, plans for the pipeline (which transports oil) were rerouted to go through sacred lands of the the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's reservation, which has its own sovereign government. Residents of the reservation not only protested construction of the pipeline on spiritual grounds, but argued that a spill from the pipeline would contaminate their communities' water sources and pose other environmental risks. Protesters at Standing Rock were met with harsh government intervention, including use of water cannons and tear gas. This incident shed light on a broader pattern of exploitation of indigenous lands for the sake of economic gain.
Finally, the Flint water crisis demonstrates the disproportionate effects of environmental crises on communities of color. Flint is a majority Black city in Michigan. In 2014, the city switched its water supply from the Detroit River and Sewage Authority to the Flint River. However, the water was not treated appropriately to further cut down on costs. This caused lead from the pipes to leach into the water, meaning that the...
water residents used for drinking, cooking, and bathing became contaminated with lead. Lead poisoning has a number of negative health impacts, particularly on brain development in young children. As a result, many children in Flint have since been diagnosed with learning disabilities or behavioral disorders that will impact them for the rest of their lives. The city switched back to its original water supply, but the damage to the pipes is irreparable.
There are countless other examples of environmental racism in the United States and elsewhere around the globe, but these are some of the most widely known. Climate change poses a risk to everyone, but because of geography, economics, and other factors, communities of color around the globe experience the most immediate threat. Environmental justice means working in tandem with these communities and taking their needs into consideration when making environmental decisions.