Why Climate Change Isn't Just An Environmental Issue

Image:   Aaditi Lele

Image: Aaditi Lele

Rising seas, carbon emissions, global warming, melting glaciers, and polar bears teetering on dwindling ice. These are the images that surface at the thought of climate change for most. For me, these images now gravitate towards climate refugees, suffocating fumes, flooded homes & fields, homelessness, and squalor. At its surface, our rapidly changing climate seems to be purely an environmental issue. A physical one. But it’s rarely that simple. Climate change is more than that. It is an ethical issue. It is a racial issue. It is a political issue. It is a socio-economic issue. It is everything and more.  

In our current state, our means and goals focus on the idea of climate action, of finding a response to halt the changes. But that alone is not enough. Our goal can’t just be climate action, it must be climate justice. As we work toward addressing the issue, we must not only work to mitigate climate change but to prevent its human rights implications. Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that “all human beings are born equal in dignity and rights.” But in today’s context of environmental change, not every human has the same capacity to adapt to these changes, not every human has the capital to escape, and not every human has the power to demand an urgent response. 


Climate justice is so unequivocally pivotal for this very reason: it recognizes the inequity and disproportionality in the distribution of environmental impact. Reconceptualizing climate change in the sphere of social justice movements, climate justice propels us to find solutions that result in accessible adaptations for everyone. Now, I know we have all heard the phrase “climate change won’t discriminate” a million times over, but don’t let it fool you. While climate change won’t spare anyone in the end, marginalized groups, the frontlines, will be the first to face the consequences if we can’t find a solution. In fact, climate change won’t itself discriminate, it will amplify the marginalization that is already in place through system after system of oppression. 

Unfortunately, socioeconomic and racial inequities already exacerbate vulnerability to climate change, extreme weather, and other impacts. The results have surfaced in the form of disparities in air quality, proximity to coal-burning plants, water quality, and resources to respond to extreme weather events.

First, the disparity in environmental impact is seen acutely through air quality data. A 2019 study evaluating ethnic disparities in fine particulate matter exposure, the largest environmental health risk in the US, found that while African Americans are exposed to 56% more pollutants than they emit, white counterparts are exposed to 17% less than they emit. Statistics like this are glaring. Despite not being the primary perpetrators, people of color bear the brunt of the damage. Why is this happening? Well, a key component to fine particulate matter exposure is proximity to coal-burning plants. The plants, unsurprisingly, are concentrated around poverty-ridden neighborhoods which consist primarily of people of color. In fact, 75 coal plants which the NAACP identified as the most impactful in the country, are located where the average per capita income is less than $17,500 and 53% of inhabitants are people of color. The excess exposure inflicted upon frontline groups constitutes an uptick in health issues, shortened life spans, and death rates. 

Another disparity, water quality, was brought to the forefront by the Flint Water Crisis and more recently, the water crisis of Newark, New Jersey. According to Paul Mohai, a professor at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability, threatening water pollution occurs where the poor and people of color are concentrated and residents “are not given meaningful say in the decisions that affect their communities and quality of life, where their concerns about pollution and the health impacts are minimized.” In fact, Mohai’s comments hint at the very reason that marginalized communities are more vulnerable to environmental threats: they already don’t have the wealth, power, or influence to divert the impacts. These very same forces were responsible for the diversion of the Dakota Access Pipeline onto sacred indigenous land. Mohai’s report of the Flint crisis calls on a solution he terms “Distributive Justice,” a call for redistribution of impacts like water pollution over the entire population rather than small concentrations of underprivileged people.

Moreover, the response to Hurricane Katrina has also divulged how socioeconomic and racial disparities, which manifest in the form of settlement and housing, can lead to drastically varied resources for responsiveness to extreme weather patterns. A Stanford study recognizes patterns of settlements where African Americans were historically pushed onto flood-prone, less desirable neighborhoods in the Gulf South as a core cause of the disproportionate impact they experienced post-Hurricane Katrina. The study also cited data that demonstrated that the New Orleans neighborhoods with the highest percentages of destruction had some of the highest African American and renter populations. Once again, pre-established minorities were underprivileged and bore the brunt of environmental damage. 


Whether its air quality, water quality, or leaking pipelines, marginalized groups are again and again bearing the brunt of climate change already. The human rights implications of unequal climate change preparedness, arising from ethnic and socioeconomic inequities, necessitate a conversation around climate change in a social justice context. Thus, in our quest for climate justice, our solutions to climate change must be inventive, acknowledge frontline communities, and take into account, all human rights implications.

Aaditi LeleComment