WORDS BY YESSENIA FUNES
Environmental injustice starts at the source of the climate crisis: fossil fuels. Their extraction and pollution threaten the health of communities of color.
Robert Bullard is the father of environmental justice. A distinguished professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University, Bullard first began exploring the relationship between the environment, place, and race back in the ’70s. At that time, the term “environmental justice” didn’t yet exist.
Racist practices by people in power, however, did. Through a civil rights lens, Bullard began studying a landfill proposal near a predominantly Black middle-class neighborhood in Houston. Today, this field of research Bullard founded continues to show that low-income communities and people of color live closest to hazardous waste sites and polluters. Before climate disaster even strikes, these vulnerable communities face a disproportionate burden from industry—often from the one most at fault for this crisis in the first place: fossil fuels.
More than 70 percent of the world’s emissions can be attributed to 100 companies, according to a 2017 report from CDP, which measures companies’ climate risks. The fossil fuel sector is responsible for this mess. It’s also responsible for the air pollution and health disparities that communities in the Gulf Coast or California’s Central Valley face daily. Climate change devastates vulnerable communities from beginning to end.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we get real about the climate crisis—and whom it affects most. I’m Yessenia Funes, the climate editor at Atmos. Today, I’m here to break down the history of environmental justice and how it relates to the heating of our planet.
The environmental justice movement is a direct result of the civil rights movement. It didn’t come from nature or conservation groups. Nope, civil rights leaders made it happen. That’s how Bullard got his start on this research.
“The environmental justice movement and environmental justice were framed out of a civil rights equity movement,” Bullard tells me over the phone. “Environmental justice, for me, embraces the principle that all communities and all people are entitled to equal protection of environmental laws and regulation, housing laws, education, land use, employment, and health.”
All communities should be entitled to this, but we know that’s not the reality. In 1978, the Houston neighborhood of Northwood Manor was confronted with a proposal for a toxic landfill. Bullard and his students relied on archival records and reports to map where landfills in the city sat. They were trying to uncover whether the locations of these city-owned landfills were, in fact, discriminatory toward Black residents. Surprise, surprise: They were. Every single landfill and 75 percent of the incinerators were in Black neighborhoods. This was despite the fact that Houston was only about 27 percent Black.
“Environmental justice, for me, embraces the principle that all communities and all people are entitled to equal protection of environmental laws and regulation, housing laws, education, land use, employment, and health.”
Bullard’s groundbreaking research helped build the case for the first U.S. lawsuit that alleged environmental discrimination using the Civil Rights Act. The community didn’t win, but this work marked a new chapter within the civil rights movement.
Bullard has since made this his life’s work. Activism around the issue didn’t explode until 1982 when another toxic landfill arrived in yet another Black community, this time Warren County, North Carolina. These protests and lawsuits reached national attention, and a literal movement—the one we know today—was born. The community also lost this battle, but they seeded the energy communities across the U.S. needed to start waging battles of their own.
Up until that point, the so-called environmental movement had ignored these communities. Mainstream environmental organizations spent their dollars around wildlife and so-called nature, instead. This framing inherently excluded humans and the social conditions that were ruining their environments.
“We talk about ‘environment’ with our definition of environmentalism and the idea that the environment is more than the physical and natural environment, which most of the mainstream green groups dealt with. They left out a major element,” Bullard says. “That’s how we brought in the equity framing of justice. That definition and reconceptualization of environmentalism were what made our movement different and what attracted more and more people of color and poor people to the environmental justice movement as opposed to the more mainstream or green groups.”
These days, vulnerable residents aren’t only dealing with dumps full of carcinogens and toxins that threaten to pollute airways and waterways. They’re also dealing with power plants, refineries, animal feeding lots, and oil and gas wells. The burning, refining, and processing of fossil fuels to power our homes or fuel our cars emit greenhouse gases that fuel the climate crisis.
Cow burps emit methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. For the communities that live near all this, the deterioration of their air quality could be the difference between life and death. That became all too clear this year in wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic that’s killed more than 212,800 people across the U.S. Research has linked air pollution to an increased risk of death from the virus.
What fuels my rage, though, is that these individuals are not responsible for all this pollution. They are not the ones whose huge mansions are eating up all the energy coming out of these power plants. They are not the ones driving gas-hungry SUVs to ride in luxury. In fact, white people are largely responsible for creating the pollution that Black and Latinx people breathe, a 2019 study published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences found.
We should all agree that’s pretty fucked up.