Communities and entire nations who do the least to contribute to rising greenhouse gas emissions bear the enormous burden of climate disaster first and worst on their bodies and their livelihoods.
In the United States, for example, African Americans consistently have the highest exposure rates for 13 out of 14 air pollutants according to the CDC; Hispanics have the highest for 10 out of 14. These factors present a plethora of health challenges to these communities, such as cardiovascular disease, asthma and other respiratory diseases, cancer and premature death. Moreover, more than 50% of people who live within 2 miles of a toxic waste facility are people of color.
As people of color become the majority of the population in America, one would wonder why environmental justice issues have not yet become the national priorities that they must become. In the wake of natural disasters profoundly exacerbated by climate change, black and brown communities are most vulnerable and at risk physically, financially, mentally and socially in the aftermath and further marginalized during the recovery process. After Hurricane Katrina, for example, 80% of people who lived in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans, the area most impacted, were permanently displaced - the majority of whom were black. Black homeowners also received on average $8000 less in government aid for recovery than their white homeowner counterparts.
This systematic doubling and tripling of oppression (people of color and income-challenged communities being bearing the brunt of the crisis and facing even more discrimination in disaster recovery) due to worsening climate impacts repeats itself in continuous patterns worldwide.
For instance, Sub-Saharan Africa is among the regions projected to see the worst of climate change in the next few decades, even as the global average temperature steadily rises - and communities in countries like Uganda and Kenya are facing devastating impacts of climate change on a regular, and even weekly, basis. For them, climate change is not a future theoretical; it is a present reality. It is everyday lived experience, so much so that it almost never receives news coverage beyond the region - just as topics like acute poverty and the AIDS crisis never breaks headlines. This year, rural communities in Kenya, like Nakuru, and the crops they rely on suffer from drought. “The weather has been especially bad this year…by this time [in May] the maize [should be] at waist height. At the moment, you can see there is nothing,” local resident Stephen Githendu says.
Last year, devastating floods scoured over the Nakuru region. Seven farmers died, some lost all of their land, and others committed suicide. In Kampala around the same time, Neighboring Uganda experienced a record-setting flood in their capital city, Kampala, on the very first day a group of us visited. The flood killed seven people - including an entire family - when their houses collapsed on them from the flood. In regions like these, erratic rain has become commonplace and farming families are suffering continuously from its unpredictability. Stories like this are endless. After record-breaking floods in Pakistan in 2010, millions of people were displaced and became climate refugees. Entire currently inhabited islands such as Tuvalu, Kiribati, Marshall, Vanuatu and Fiji are threatened to completely disappear amidst sea level rise within the next 50 years.
How can people of faith read and respond? First, we must identify patterns of institutionalized environmental racism - that it is people of color and those who contribute to the crisis the least who are hit the most, culminating in a doubling and tripling of oppression. We should read these stories and make the connections between economic disparity and environmental degradation; between racism and toxicity. Then, we must recognize that working towards climate justice is inseparable from working towards racial and economic justice, and put this in practice. We lament the confluence of climate disaster with race, class and global disparity.
We pray for our brothers and sisters who must live with the risk of this danger every day of their lives, whether it be in the US or globally. And then, we must act - by educating our circles about the intersectionality of climate justice and the reality and intensity of the climate crisis in the present, by having the courage to have difficult conversations, and by advocating for bold and transformative climate policies that center the most vulnerable in our society.
Header photo caption: Farmer-pastor Samuel Kinuthia tending to his crops; The maize is typically at waist height this time in May, in non-drought-ridden climates.
The writer, Melody Zhang traveled with World Renew Climate Change Bootcamp to East Africa, and serves as the Climate Justice Campaign Coordinator at Sojourners