While climate change affects all of us, Black, Indigenous, and communities of colour around the globe are more likely to be affected by climate impacts like rising sea levels, disappearing shorelines, heavy rainfall, raging storms and floods, intense heat waves, and rising temperatures.
They are also more likely to live in places where the polluting industries that drive climate change focus their activities, putting them at greater risk of danger to their individual and community health.
At the same time, the voices of these communities are the least represented around the decision-making tables where change can happen, creating a barrier to the power structures and policies that could help keep them safe.
This combination – more likely to be impacted, less able to influence decisions about those impacts – is the result of “environmental racism,” a form of systemic racism that has devastating impacts on communities throughout Canada, the United States, and beyond.
The term environmental racism was initially coined in 1982 by Dr. Benjamin Chavis, as part of a grassroots movement led by Black Americans in Warren County, North Carolina, who were fighting against the proposed dumping of toxic waste in their community. The term has since gone on to be used in movements towards climate justice around the world.
In order to address environmental racism and work towards a fair and climate safe future for all, the first step is uplifting the voices of the communities facing the greatest impacts, and understanding the issues that affect them most.
In this article, we examine some of the unequal impacts of climate change on communities of colour, highlight two organizations leading the charge for change, and share some of the successes they’ve achieved in their fight to keep their communities safe.
The unequal impacts of climate change
In Canada, Indigenous communities have been some of the most harshly impacted by the effects of climate change. For example, in the Arctic, Inuit communities are watching their land disappear before their very eyes due to melting permafrost. Meanwhile, 32% of First Nations people living on-reserve are at risk of wildfires – a percentage three times higher than Canada as a whole.
And the data that has emerged from these and other examples reveals huge differences in impact along lines of race. For instance, research has found that Black Americans breathe 56 percent more pollution than they produce while Whites breathe 17 percent less.
As climate impacts continue to worsen, so too will their unequal effect on communities of colour. However, there are individuals and groups working to make sure that their voices are heard and their communities are safe.
First established in 2012 by Dr. Ingrid Waldron, the Environmental Noxiousness, Racial Inequities and Community Health (ENRICH) Project seeks to “examine and address the social, environmental, political, and health effects of environmental racism and climate change in Indigenous, Black, and other marginalized communities across Canada”.
Through community-based research, partnership building across sectors, and community engagement, the project works to inform policies and legislation to help protect those impacted – specifically Mi’kmaw and African Nova Scotian communities on the East Coast of Canada.
Part of the strength of the ENRICH project however, lies in its ability to scale. It sets a strong framework that other provinces – and even the Federal government – can follow and build off of. In fact, Waldron’s work inspired the creation of Bill C-230, which sought to drive the creation of a national strategy to deal with environmental racism in Canada.
Bill C-230 was approved by the House of Commons environment committee in June 2021, but was unfortunately automatically defeated when a federal election was called in September of that year.
However, the bill brought environmental racism into mainstream conversations in Canada, introducing a much wider audience to the issue.
In 2022, the bill was reintroduced as Bill C-226, and is currently undergoing its second reading in the Canadian Senate, giving Dr. Waldron and others hope that true change is coming for the communities who need it most.
NDN Collective is an Indigenous-led organization in the United States. Their goal is to build Indigenous power through “organizing, activism, philanthropy, grantmaking, capacity-building and narrative change.” Among the primary campaigns for the organization is climate justice.
Within this campaign they seek to ensure support, resource rights, and sovereignty for the communities most affected by climate impacts, while also working to address climate change at its root cause.
In April of 2021 Jade Begay, the Director of Policy and Advocacy for NDN Collective was announced as one of the members of U.S. President Joe Biden’s White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council.
This council went on to form a working group whose recommendations resulted in the creation of the federal government’s Justice40 initiative. The goal of the initiative is to ensure that “40 percent of the overall benefits of certain Federal investments flow to disadvantaged communities that are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution.”
According to the White House, the categories for these investments include climate change, clean energy and energy efficiency, the removal of pollutants from impacted communities, and clean water infrastructure.
While still in its early stages, Begay and other community advocates have expressed optimism that Justice40 will lay the groundwork for truly transformative change to protect communities from climate impacts and the polluting industries that drive them.
The organizations listed above highlight just two examples of the countless people throughout North America and around the globe, who are working to help keep tens of thousands of their fellow community members safe. And while their inspiring efforts have already led to powerful change, the work is not theirs alone to carry.
By uplifting the voices of the communities most affected by climate change, we can all do our part to help build a fair and climate safe future for everyone.