There Is no Climate Justice Without Racial Justice

“I can’t breathe.” 

These three words - first uttered by Eric Garner in 2014 and too many others that never had their stories told - once again became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement following the May 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. 

But for many, “I can’t breathe” is about more than being choked out by police brutality, it’s also about Black communities being systemically suffocated by air pollution. 

According to the Health Effects Institute (HEI)’s State of Global Air 2020 report, air pollution caused the death of over 60,000 Americans in 2019 alone. Air pollution increases the risk of illness and death from several major diseases including heart disease, lung cancer, COPD, stroke, type 2 diabetes and neonatal diseases related primarily to low birth weight and premature birth. 

New research also suggests that long-term exposure to air pollution increases the risk of catching and dying from coronavirus. 

While Black Americans produce less of this deadly air pollution than white Americans, their communities disproportionately bear the brunt of its devastating health impacts. 

According to a 2019 study, after accounting for population size differences, white Americans experience roughly 17 percent less air pollution than they produce through consumption, while Black Americans bear 56 percent more air pollution than they cause. This means higher rates of asthma, poor health outcomes for Black mothers and a myriad of other conditions, all of which compound with the immense healthcare inequities that already exist in those communities. 

Little is being done to offset environmental inequities like increased air pollution exposure, though. Studies have shown that urban green spaces tend to be in wealthier and majority-white neighborhoods, while low-income people of color are forced to live in neighborhoods that have been ecologically decimated by climate change.

Why do these environmental inequities exist? Because the U.S. has treated Black Americans and their communities as expendable and disposable, a concept deeply rooted in colonialism, capitalism and white supremacy. 

Related: 6 Indigenous Women Working for Environmental Change

Racist practices like redlining, have led to the creation of sacrifice zones, which are communities that have been permanently impacted by environmental damage. Dr. Robert Bullard, who is known as the father of Environmental Justice, says these zones are born through the consistent placement of mega-polluters like fossil fuel plants in refineries in or near Black communities.

Placing these environmental hazards in Black communities increases the risk of exposure to harmful air pollution, but also ensures that white communities won’t have to deal with the pollution they are driving. This only serves to perpetuate the structural inequalities that already exist, especially in healthcare - a fact that is all too clear in the middle of a global pandemic that has claimed a disproportionate number of Black lives in the U.S. 

The environmental movement, which has been too white for too long, needs to step up and be actively anti-racist to protect Black communities from further environmental harm. And the time to act is now. 

 “This is a moment of reckoning for racial injustice and health disparities,” said Catherine Garcia Flowers, a field organizer in Houston for Moms Clean Air Force. “Doing nothing about air pollution, which so clearly has a greater impact on Black Americans, is racism in action.”

As the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health put it in a statement on racial injustice and systemic racism in the U.S., the principle is simple: “Everyone deserves an equal opportunity to live a healthy life.” That means solving not only the graphically visible depictions of racism like police brutality but also the silent, slow killers like climate change. If we fail to act on racism, we fail to act on climate change.