Environmental racism is the unequal impact of environmental hazards on Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). That looks like policies, rules, regulations and governmental and corporate decisions that have an unfair impact on BIPOC communities and their environment, like the placement of toxic and dangerous facilities in low-income and communities of color.
One example is the bulldozing of the historically Black Albina neighborhood in North and Northeast Portland in the 1950s and 1960s to construct the Interstate 5 highway. A governmental decision to place the highway in that location demolished more than 300 homes in Lower Albina. Two thirds of the 3,000 people who lived there were Black, in part due to racial segregation. The freeway’s placement split the neighborhood in half, and increased car traffic led to more pollution felt primarily by the Black residents remaining in the area. Local organizations like the Albina Vision Trust are now leading reinvestment and reenvisioning of the neighborhood from this harm.
How is it different from environmentalism?
Environmental justice is the response to environmental racism. It is a movement to ensure the fair treatment and protection of all people and their access to clean air, water, land, healthy food, and transportation. Environmental justice creates safe and healthy environments where we live, work, learn, play, and pray. The movement organizes around 17 Environmental Justice Principles.
Environmental justice is a more specific approach than environmentalism, which is more generally about protecting the environment. Often, people think the environment only relates to national parks, forests, or wildlife. But it’s important that we don’t neglect people and our relationship to our environment. We use the term environmental justice because we are considering the natural and built environment. It means our community. It includes the daily surrounding areas that people in our communities interact with—your local park, your sidewalks and bus stops, your grocery stores, and more. Because we consider all parts of our environment, we have to consider how all types of social injustices prevent people from living in safe and healthy environments. Our framework for environmental justice intersects with racial, gender, disability, housing, transportation, and climate justice.
Climate justice is a term and a movement that recognizes the uneven effects of the climate crisis around Oregon, the United States, and the globe. The worst effects like extreme heat, flooding, and crop failures are disproportionately felt by low-income people, Black and Indigenous people, people of color, and the global South. These communities, who we consider at the front lines of the climate crisis, have already been facing historic struggles against social, economic, and environmental injustices. Those struggles are made worse by extractive and pollutive industries that have been purposefully and systemically situated next to and on the actual land of the communities. This unfair exposure to climate and environmental injustice results in acute and chronic impacts to human and environmental health.
An example of climate injustice in Oregon is how extreme heat during the summer of 2021 caused death and severe injury among farmworkers on the front lines. Due to the ongoing climate crisis, the Pacific Northwest experienced a heat dome for about five days in June, with temperatures as high as 116 degrees Fahrenheit, much higher than the usual 70 degrees expected in the area. Frontline workers doing physically demanding jobs, often those supporting infrastructure and working outside, and even inside, were heavily affected. Because there are few well-enforced state, municipal, or corporate regulations about worker safety, workers were left to fend for themselves. Farmworkers, many of whom are immigrants of color who have been systematically excluded from the minimal protection offered by federal labor laws, were particularly vulnerable. Without heat relief precautions or job security protections, workers needed to stay on the job, and some lost their lives. This example connects the social and economic injustices that are made worse by the climate crisis.
"Climate justice is about intersectional equity. It is about being radically inclusive of all groups of people, so that everyone has access to clean air, food and water. As a dear friend always says, 'climate justice isn’t just for the rich and white.' It is a fight alongside those who are displaced; whose rivers have been poisoned; whose lands were stolen; who watch their houses get washed away every other season; and who fight tirelessly for what are basic human rights." —Disha Ravi, Indian activist
How does it relate to the environment?
Transportation is central to everyone’s life, but not all people enjoy the benefits of public investment. Lack of investment in bike, pedestrian, and public transit infrastructure results in barriers to opportunity for low-income people, many of whom face increasing isolation from economic opportunity, are at risk from air toxins, and are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Safe, accessible, affordable, efficient, and decriminalized mass and active transportation is a human right!
When we make transit more accessible, reliable, and safe, we make taking transit a better option than cars, especially single-occupancy vehicles, which is key to working against climate change. As of 2019, 29% of greenhouse gas emissions comes from the transportation sector, 58% of which comes from single occupancy vehicles. By getting more people to use public transit, we will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This is just one way we recognize that transportation justice is environmental justice.
Environmental justice, climate justice, and transportation justice are all part of a goal of a just transition. A just transition is a set of principles, processes, and practices that build economic and political power to shift from an extractive economy to a regenerative economy. A just transition has six key strategies:
- End the Bad: Stop extractive, exploitative, and polluting industries and our reliance on them.
- Build the New: Advance an economy that gives power to the people, making it possible for all people to have access to a dignified and sustainable life.
- Move the Money (Divest–Invest): Divest from the extractive economy, like prisons and the fossil fuel sector, and move money into community control, investing in cooperative labor and regeneration.
- Change the Rules: Change the rules through policy advocacy to support frontline-led economic initiatives.
- Change the Story: Challenge the dominant worldview of White supremacy, consumerism, and militarism, and instead work toward care, sacredness, and ecological and social well-being.
- Build a Movement of Movements: To do this visionary, systemic change, we need groups from all different movements and sectors to recognize where our interests intersect, and work together.
The transition itself must be just and equitable, redressing past harms and creating new relationships of power for the future through reparations. If the process of transition is not just, the outcome will never be. Just transition describes both where we are going and how we get there. Looking for an example? Farmworkers in the Pacific Northwest are pushing for a just transition due the worsening working and economic conditions due to climate change.
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