The Link Between Systemic Racism and Climate Change in the US

The Link Between Systemic Racism and Climate Change in the US

In the United States, the greatest burden of climate impacts are disproportionately borne by low-income communities of color. Extreme weather events like storms, wildfires, floods, and heat waves cause health problems and property damage across the U.S. Low-income communities often lack funding to rebuild quickly from disasters and ensure resilience to future ones, and for low-income families with small personal savings resources, a medical or weather disaster can be catastrophic.

In addition to income challenges, systemic racism plays a significant role in the distribution of harms from climate impacts in the United States. High-emitting generation sources are often cited closer to African American communities than white communities, and American Indian reservations lack access to many resources that could help make them more resilient to the harmful impacts of climate change. Additionally, when disasters strike, communities of color are often under-served by disaster response teams.

For example, a study published in 2018 found those living in poverty were 35% more likely than average to be exposed to harmful particulate pollution. When broken down by race, non-whites were 28% more likely, and specifically Blacks were 54% more likely than average to be exposed to particulate matter.

Systems that harm non-white Americans and U.S. residents by supporting radicalized police violence, education and employment gaps, wealth gaps, and lower life expectancy also support politics governing climate change causes and responses in the U.S., making even action to mitigate climate change uneven in its application to people of different races.

Without strong federal climate policy, climate mitigation and resilience in the U.S. are often governed at the state and local level, and in many areas, this prioritizes action in higher-income white communities. Many climate mitigation incentives like electric vehicle tax credits, renewable energy contracts, and energy efficiency investments that cut costs and emissions in the long run are often inaccessible to poor residents because of high up-front cost barriers. Additionally, policies like fuel taxes intended to dis-incentivize emissions sources often put a higher burden on poorer residents with less disposable income than their richer peers.

Finally, under-representation in elected office detracts from the equity of policy proposals and regulations, as the voices of those most affected by climate change are often suppressed or unheard. Twenty-two% of all U.S. Members of Congress are nonwhite – a historic high – but with nonwhites making up 39% of the overall U.S. population this still overrepresents white voices in the federal legislature. In addition to under-representation at the federal level, a 2014 article found that 1.2 million African Americans were underrepresented by their local city or municipal councils, suppressing their voices in local issues including climate change and sustainability planning.

Some cities and states around the country aim to reduce the burden of climate mitigation and resilience on low-income residents by providing targeted assistance programs and incorporating income structures into resilience planning, but few focus directly on racial disparities.

In the wake of the racial justice protests that swept the nation following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police, policymakers are increasingly engaging directly with issues of race and environmental justice. With the direct incorporation of environmental justice into the Democratic Presidential campaign platform, the tide may be turning toward deeper redress of systemic environmental injustices.


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In the wake of the racial justice protests that swept the nation following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police, policymakers are increasingly engaging directly with issues of race and environmental justice. With the direct incorporation of environmental justice into the Democratic Presidential campaign platform, the tide may be turning toward deeper redress of systemic environmental injustices.


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Send a message to your Members of Congress supporting policies to address environmental justice.

Dear [Member of Congress],

The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare many of the structural inequities in the United States, which we can no longer ignore. Much like the current crisis, the climate crisis threatens the safety and stability of many of our most vulnerable residents, and policies to address it need to be equitable for all, addressing both economic and systemic racial injustices. The urgency of climate change remains – as we rebuild our economy from the effects of the pandemic, we must include provisions to advance environmental justice and climate justice.

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This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard US Country Manager Stephanie Gagnon


Image source: redgreenandblue.org

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