Any Good Climate Plan Must Address Poverty and Racism

Why climate justice advocates have been demanding this since long before the Green New Deal.

Dayton Martindale October 31, 2019

Residents of Sunset Park relax against the backdrop of the Manhattan skyline. Sunset Park, where over 75% of the population is non-white, has higher levels of air pollution and less access to healthy food options than other New York City neighborhoods like Greenwich Village and Park Slope, according to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. (Busà Photography / Getty Images)

When the Green New Deal res­o­lu­tion was intro­duced by Rep. Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez (D‑N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D‑Mass.), many were con­fused by its scope: Why would a cli­mate plan also promise hous­ing and healthcare?

Climate policy has often been determined by the wealthy and powerful—those who are causing the crisis—and its record is one of failure.

But the resolution’s empha­sis on eco­nom­ic jus­tice showed AOC and Markey were pay­ing atten­tion. Envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice advo­cates have long con­nect­ed pol­lu­tion with pover­ty and racism, and as Michelle Chen report­ed for In These Times in August 2009, these con­nec­tions hold true for cli­mate change. In Falling Through the Cli­mate Gap,” Chen writes:

Cli­mate change will exac­er­bate region­al health dis­par­i­ties tied to indus­tri­al air pol­lu­tion. In many areas, peo­ple of col­or suf­fer greater impacts from dirty air, because they are more like­ly than whites to live in com­mu­ni­ties heav­i­ly exposed to pol­lu­tion sources like coal-fired pow­er plants [and] oil refineries. …

Many urban neigh­bor­hoods … are prone to the heat island” effect: Sur­faces absorb heat and raise area tem­per­a­tures. Fur­ther, the preva­lence of heat-trap­ping sur­faces in a neigh­bor­hood cor­re­lates strong­ly with pover­ty and the pro­por­tion of peo­ple of color.

As seen in the uneven destruc­tion wrought by [Hur­ri­cane] Kat­ri­na, a community’s resilience is often deter­mined by social priv­i­lege. Mar­gin­al pop­u­la­tions tend to lack insur­ance and be neglect­ed by emer­gency response and health­care systems. …

The poor and peo­ple of col­or are dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly threat­ened by poten­tial floods. Their vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty is height­ened not only because of where they live, but also fac­tors like lim­it­ed Eng­lish abil­i­ty and lack of access to emer­gency transportation. …

Extreme weath­er … could dras­ti­cal­ly increase ener­gy prices, mak­ing it hard­er for work­ing-class fam­i­lies to cov­er the cost of elec­tric­i­ty. Cli­mate volatil­i­ty could also lead to job loss­es in the farm­ing and tourism sectors. 

Because of these dis­par­i­ties, envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice advo­cates insist that invest­ments in social ser­vices, hous­ing and infra­struc­ture” are crit­i­cal to the cli­mate fight, Chen reports.

The rel­a­tive­ly mod­er­ate cli­mate bill Con­gress was con­sid­er­ing in 2009 (co-authored by Markey) nev­er passed. The next big fed­er­al cli­mate push only took off in Decem­ber 2018 — the Green New Deal. As Chris­tine Mac­Don­ald report­ed for InThe​se​Times​.com in Sep­tem­ber, sev­er­al lead­ing pres­i­den­tial con­tenders have put out detailed plans for how they’d use the Green New Deal to sup­port mar­gin­al­ized communities.

Cli­mate pol­i­cy has often been deter­mined by the wealthy and pow­er­ful — those who are caus­ing the cri­sis — and its record is one of fail­ure. It’s high time those who will be most affect­ed set the priorities. 

Day­ton Mar­tin­dale is a free­lance writer and for­mer asso­ciate edi­tor at In These Times. His work has also appeared in Boston Review, Earth Island Jour­nal, Har­bin­ger and The Next Sys­tem Project. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @DaytonRMartind.

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