August 21, 2020

COVID-19 recovery must include environmental justice

Posted by Caitlin Bergstrom

Caroline Gleason is AGU’s spring 2020 public affairs intern and a graduate student studying climate and society at Columbia University. She is passionate about climate communication, STEM education and protecting public lands. Find her on Twitter @cgleas19.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on many unaddressed inequities in our society. In many cases, it has compounded the disproportionate health and safety outcomes of Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) in the U.S. These outcomes, along with recent protests for racial justice, have brought issues of environmental justice to Congress.


The House Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change held a hearing on 9 June titled, “Pollution and Pandemics: COVID-19’s Disproportionate Impact on Environmental Justice Communities.” Committee members heard testimony from Jacqueline Patterson of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Mustafa Santiago Ali of the National Wildlife Federation and Shay Hawkins of the Opportunity Funds Association. The witnesses, particularly Patterson and Ali, emphasized that the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 felt by BIPOC are nothing new. They pointed out that the decades of disinvestment and rollbacks of environmental regulations have created vulnerable communities less capable of bouncing back from today’s challenges.


This blog post provides an introduction to environmental justice, as well as a brief overview of this immense, interdisciplinary and important issue.


What is environmental justice?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin or income, with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.” Achieving environmental justice requires that all stakeholders have a seat at the table to help advance equal protection from environmental health hazards and equal access to environmental decisions.

Many issues fall under the umbrella of environmental justice. As Ali stated during the 9 June hearing, it is “an environmental issue, but it is also a transportation issue, it is a housing justice issue, it is a public health issue and it is an economic justice issue.” Historically, American society has broadly associated environmentalism with images of rainforests and stranded polar bears, rather than connecting the impacts of environmental decisions and health hazards to our own lives. The discourse around environmental justice challenges us to see our place within our larger ecosystem and to see ourselves not as separate from our environment, but as products of it.


Clean air is a crucial issue  

Seventy-one percent of African Americans live in counties that are in violation of federal air pollution standards. A recent study found that that African American, as well as Hispanic and Latino American people are exposed to more pollution than they produce through consumption and daily activities (56% and 63% more, respectively), while non-Hispanic white Americans are typically exposed to 17% less pollution than they produce. This disproportionate exposure to pollution has been shown to lead to higher rates of respiratory disease and weakened immunity, which has left affected communities more susceptible to COVID-19, a virus that targets the respiratory system.

While this imbalance in health effects is not solely due to higher rates of air pollution in communities of color across the U.S., a recent Harvard University study established a correlation between exposure to particulate pollution and increased COVID-19 deaths. As with all issues of environmental justice, decades of systemic injustices have led to these health outcomes. A significant proportion of frontline workers are Black; thus, these workers are more exposed to contracting COVID-19. Additionally, discriminatory housing policies like redlining have led to BIPOC folks living in polluted and dangerous areas, establishing race as the number one indicator for placement of toxic waste facilities in the U.S.


Climate change is an existential issue

Environmental justice applies to both public health and climate change impacts that affected communities may experience. A recent Groundwork USA project compared National Archives maps of five redlined communities with NASA heat island data “to explore the relationship between historical race-based housing segregation and the current and predicted impacts of climate change.” Titled Climate Safe Neighborhoods, this project found that temperatures in redlined areas were higher than in other parts of each city by an average of four degrees Fahrenheit.

BIPOC communities are also vulnerable to other climate change-related impacts, such as flooding events. According to both the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), vulnerability is defined as a community’s resilience to extreme events and not their potential exposure to disasters and pandemics. Vulnerability is measured using data, such as income, level of education, types of housing and other population demographics. Thus, vulnerability is not about which communities have the most exposure to these extreme weather events, but which communities have the least amount of resources to deal with them.

As AGU leaders Robin Bell and Lisa White wrote earlier this year, some places like Miami Beach have the resources to raise roads to adapt to rising sea levels. Meanwhile, Mumbai, India, floods regularly during its monsoon season and does not have the same resources to protect local residents and property.

Decades of disinvestment have left vulnerable communities with a lower capacity to prepare for and cope with extreme weather and climate-related events, and as a result, these communities are expected to experience greater impacts. This imbalance is already at play. Districts where Black residents are the majority account for only six percent of the U.S. but have needed nearly a quarter (24%) of emergency funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.


What comes next?

Environmental justice is not a new issue but it is now gaining traction in Congress. The House of Representatives passed the HEROES Act, the fourth COVID-19 stimulus package, contains provisions for environmental justice grants. The Senate is currently negotiating its own stimulus bills (the HEALS Act). Additionally, one of AGU’s four policy priorities for 2020 is supporting legislation to build a more resilient society, which depends, in part, on environmental justice.

Environmental injustice is a broad and urgent problem that cannot be solved or summarized simply. As Patterson shared in her written testimony for the Pollution and Pandemics hearing, “We can put it all in buckets, sub-categories, and sub-bullets. […] But when people begin to summarize, the most vulnerable, the most marginalized populations, fall through the cracks, just as they do in a system that is predicated on a philosophy and set of policies and practices that favor a survival of the fittest mode of operating.”

The issue at hand is complex but as scientists, we face complex problems all the time. This should serve to ignite our curiosity. As we all navigate the recovery from this pandemic, environmental justice must be woven into our solutions if we are to build a resilient society for everyone.

To learn more, please visit NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program.