Happy Monday and welcome back! You may be living in a city that experienced some significantly high temps last week. But who’s responsible for the rising temperatures, and who’s most affected? Today, Andrew unpacks the issue for today’s newsletter.
For more perspectives on the environment and the future of this planet, I highly recommend reading our Earth Week series where we interviewed leading youth environmental justice activists on their work. It’s available in full in our archives.
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Swathes of North America have been embroiled in a blistering, record-setting heat wave. The Lake Mead reservoir, which provides water to 25 million, is at the lowest level ever since its construction in the 1930s (CNN). In Vancouver, British Columbia, shellfish are being baked to death in their shells (Business Insider). Dozens of people died in Oregon alone when temperatures reached 116 degrees (Newsweek). After temperatures broke 121 Fahrenheit, a rapidly-moving wildfire consumed the entire town of Lytton (CNN). A group of scientists reported that heat so “far outside the range of past observed temperatures” is “virtually impossible without the influence of human-caused climate change” (CNN). That means this summer’s extremes aren’t a fluke but rather part of a near-apocalyptic pattern.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the average global temperature will rise by two to four degrees Celsius by century’s end, though a rise of just 1.5 degrees would “near the upper limit of what’s tolerable” (KQED). Overshooting that mark means daily flooding along the East Coast (Press Herald), a billion people fleeing droughts and starvation (Reuters), and frequent heat waves severe enough to cook the organs inside your body (The Conversation). These aren’t worst-case scenarios, they’re projections of what happens should current trends continue.
Given the disasters already in motion and predictions of regular organ-cooking temperatures across large swathes of the inhabited world, it’s understandable to think we’re all doomed. When global ecosystems are at a crisis point, we’re all in this together, right?
But in a deeply unequal world, a global crisis has wildly uneven effects. A rising tide may lift all boats, but those closest to shore drown first. There are some for whom climate catastrophe is a cause for hand-wringing concern about their hypothetical grandchildren’s living standards. There are others for whom the crisis arrived years ago.
Neighborhoods of color affected by redlining, historic bank and government-sponsored housing discrimination, are five degrees hotter than non-redlined neighborhoods since they have dramatically less tree cover. In Portland, OR, they’re a shocking 13 degrees warmer (NPR). Communities of color are where state and business elites dump toxic chemicals, coal-fired power plants, and chemical factories across the country. “The climate emergency will have a disproportionate impact on Black and Brown communities” (Guardian) since “the lack of equitable investment in low-income communities leaves people even more at risk for climate change impacts” (NRDC). When Lytton burned, those hardest-hit were the 1,000 members of Indigenous Nlaka’pamux community (CNN). And the climate refugees are already here: a devastating drought is one of the factors pushing the Central American migrants whom the Biden administration keeps incarcerating at the U.S.-Mexico border (ABC).
Droughts and rising sea levels already threaten modern-day U.S. colonies like the U.S. Virgin Islands (Caribbean Journal), “purchased” from Denmark in the early 20th century, and Guam, “acquired” in the Spanish-American War, where 34% of coral reefs died between 2013 and 2017. “One of the first steps is self-determination,” said the vice-chair of Guam’s Climate Change Resiliency Commission. “We’re a colony, and that’s part of dialogue” (Pacific Daily News).
While the poorest communities and nations bear the brunt of the ongoing climatological disaster, those with the most economic power and military might are those creating and profiting from it. Liberal environmentalists claim that the solution to climate change is changing personal consumer choices, like driving less or buying “green.”
But promoting recycling doesn’t change the fact that one of the largest polluters in the world is the U.S. military, which uses 270,000 barrels of oil a day and emits more greenhouse gases than most countries (Yahoo). Multinational corporations are responsible for 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions. “Walmart… generated more emissions abroad than the whole of Germany’s foreign-owned retail sector. Coca-Cola’s emissions around the world were equivalent to the whole of the foreign-owned food and drink industry hosted by China” (Ecologist).
Some say that humans are killing the planet, that we are all at risk and all of us are to blame. This is untrue. Upper management and investors in multinational corporations and American government elites are destroying the planet, and the very people they have long preyed upon are the first to be displaced, starve, roast, drown, and die.
To preserve a habitable world for all of us and our descendants may require a fundamental shift in how we produce things and structure social and international relations. In the short term, a blanket approach to environmentalism will not suffice. Even major philanthropic foundations are starting to recognize that environmental racism and climate change affect poor nations and communities of color first (AP). Supporting the leadership of these communities in opposing the destructive systems that threaten life as we know it is a human imperative.
Climate change and environmental degradation disproportionately impact marginalized communities of color in the U.S. and around the world.
Those heating the planet are powerful institutions like major corporations and the U.S. military.
These communities should lead the way in fighting for environmental justice.