Spotlight on Climate and Environmental Justice

Climate justice poster

Spotlight on Climate and Environmental Justice

This tip sheet is based off a webinar EJN hosted on 8 July 2020 with:

  • Lisa Garcia, head of Fix, Grist’s solutions lab. Previously a senior advisor to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and chief advocate for Environmental Justice for New York State.
  • Drew Costley, a staff writer and multimedia journalist at OneZero on Medium (@drewcostley).
  • Sweta Daga, a freelance reporter based in India who served as a Fellow for the People’s Archive of Rural India (@DangerDaga).


During that discussion, our speakers shared how they sought to expose inequities through their reporting and how environmental injustice is so often tied to deep-rooted social and racial inequalities.

Here are few ways to think about these issues and bring them into your reporting.

Public health and environmental injustice are often interlinked

In the US, indigenous and community groups have always put public health at the forefront of the environmental movement, said Garcia.

Why? Because they understand that “environmental injustices are at the root of massive health disparities in communities of color and low-income communities,” she noted.

For example, this joint study on African-Americans and power plant pollution found that 68% of Black people live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant, compared to 56% of the white population.

Most farmworkers are Latinx and may be migrants or lack legal work authorization, making them more vulnerable to risks posed by pesticide exposure, according to this report by Farmworker Justice.

And African-Americans and Puerto Ricans are three times more likely to die from asthma than white Americans.

Coronavirus has further exposed and emphasized long-standing inequities

A study in April by the Harvard School of Public Health found that in over 3,000 counties people who live in areas with higher levels of air pollution are more likely to die of Covid-19 than those in less polluted areas.

Then a July 5 investigation by The New York Times found that Black and Latinx people in the US were three times as likely to contract the coronavirus as their white neighbors and were two times as likely to die from it.

But these communities have also focused on solutions, such as transitioning to cleaner and more sustainable energy, zero waste, zero emissions, cleaner public transit systems.

“One of the things I have learned from the environmental justice and climate justice movement is that it’s such a resilient movement. It’s an intergenerational movement,” said Garcia.

Land-use legacies have ripple effects

Even before the Black Lives Matter protests, the US was beginning to see the fallout of what people in the environmental justice movement had long been saying, Costley noted. And one of the biggest topics of the environmental movement has been land use; who gets access to land and who doesn’t.

That’s true in other places, too. In India, for example, the Forest Rights Act of 2006 was considered a big win for forest-dwelling communities since it was touted as reversing historic injustices stemming from land grabs that began during colonial times.

But land grabs continue today in many places.

“The very custodians of our ecological hotspots in India are sometimes treated like the problem,” said Daga, pointing to how, when land reserves are created in the name of wildlife protection or national parks, tribal communities who have been living with animals and nature for centuries are often pushed to the side.

“Environmental justice is a term we have now to describe things that have been happening for centuries,” Costley noted.

A global problem based around historical discrimination

“While Black and Brown people have always been the most vulnerable in the West, here in India we call it the caste system,” said Daga.

It’s a system that ranks people by birth and has traditionally marginalized and disenfranchised what are known as “Dalits,” as well as Muslims and tribal and indigenous communities, she explained.

But in India, protests against the government and freedom of the press have been clamped down upon in recent years.

“It’s not about comparing movements, but I feel like something like what’s happening with BLM [Black Lives Matter] in the US would be really difficult in India right now,” Daga said. “We’re so used to police brutality and violence that it’s actually normalized and reported very little, if at all.”

The lack of reporting on abuses, be it social or environmental, has profound effects. In many countries, for example, environmental mismanagement on the part of corporations or through a lack of policies or regulation to safeguard natural resources is exacerbating the negative fallout from climate change.

Daga explained how in India coal mines are being opened to private bids at a time when many countries are moving away from fossil fuels and other dirty forms of energy generation.

Her worry is that much of what has kept communities resilient in the face of disaster could be lost due to discrimination and social hierarchies that don’t value or support certain groups or ways of living.

“With the vanishing of traditional livelihoods, I really fear the vanishing of a lot of traditional knowledge,” Daga said.

Story ideas

“The stories you should be covering are the ones the people in these communities say you should be covering,” said Costley.

He covers environmental justice issues as a beat by looking at what communities are doing and how they’re building coalitions. Some of the most innovative ideas for how to respond to the climate crisis are happening within these frontline communities, he said.

Two examples:

  1. Community gardens started popping up along the US’s Gulf coast in response to food shortages among those relying on supplemental food assistance following Hurricane Katrina. The goal was to make sure poor communities had access to food at all times. What’s happened to them since and have they proven valuable during the Covid-19 pandemic?
  2. Private air quality monitoring devices are increasingly common in community spaces and homes. But the fight to get more accurate air quality data is something that has been happening in communities of color for decades. Too often, state-controlled monitors are placed away from areas where air pollution is highest, allowing officials to dismiss the problem, Costley noted. Instead, communities have taken to collecting the data themselves. Is this happening in other places and to what effect?

Areas of focus

  • Migration: For Daga, economic inequalities in India have been further sharpened by the Covid-19 pandemic. What’s interesting, she said, is that a lot of migrants who come to urban areas could be considered environmental migrants since in the rural areas where they were living and working the water and land have been polluted or confiscated.
  • Food security: Issues of water and food are where we’re going to feel the day-to-day effects of climate change and environmental degradation, said Costley. We’re already feeling them in some communities and it’s going to intensify.
  • Economics: The economics are not far away from environmental justice issues, and especially in India the economics are really important to understand: Why are we in this situation, what are the politics and the laws that regulate these issues?


Why is it important to humanize these stories?

“It’s because we feel before we think and we’ve spent decades now covering climate and the environment from the perspective of people who are putting out projections and predictions about how bad it’s going to be. But you notice that people didn’t actually start paying attention – at least in the US – until Hurricane Katrina, until you start seeing images of people on the top of their roofs, until you start seeing stories of people dying at sports arenas, where they’re refugees in their own cities,” said Costley.

“There’s no other way that you’re going  to have a sustained and lasting  impact of your work on others and get [them] to actually act to try to make change in their own communities and the world unless they are able to make that heart connection, that feeling with other people who are actually suffering from these issues.”

“It is about the communities that are being affected,” said Daga. “I might not have enough data or may not know a lot about the science, but I definitely know about what’s going on on the ground.”

“We have to continue to amplify the voices of the people doing the real work in communities, the frontline communities,” said Garcia. “And it takes time because a lot of times they’re the ones working on unemployment issues, pay equity issues, health care issues.”


Some FAQs

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Are there lessons we can learn from Covid-19 to try to build a better response to climate change? And is it taking away from coverage of or attention to climate change or is it helping people see how climate change could also have similar, devastating impacts?

Costley: “As it has developed, at least in the US and other places that have fumbled their response to the coronavirus, you see parallels in this trade-off for industry, for capitalism to continue at the cost of human life.

“And a lack of resolute governmental response ….For example, you have the governor of New Jersey saying they’re trying to prevent deaths but at the same time they’re stopping short of actually closing restaurants again. So you have this inability to put really strong measures in place – to almost literally stop the bleeding – and that’s the exact same thing we’re seeing with climate.”

Garcia: “There are so many parallels. What you’re hearing is just because the protests end doesn’t mean racism ends. Just because Covid gets better doesn’t mean we can forget about the essential workers who are still struggling for equity and pay, who, in the US at least, are usually people of color or people who don’t have access to great health care.

“It would be great if we could take those parallels and say, ‘This is a big issue and it needs systemic and real investment to change, and that these Band-Aids or this patchwork of thanking someone today, you need to make sure you thank them the next day and the next day and invest in their future, invest in their quality of life.

“And it’s the same thing with climate change, it’s going to take all of us, it’s going to take a big investment for us to really tackle this issue.”


Given all these connections between the environment and health, why does it seem like activists and funders in these two fields, of environment and health, they seem to act in separate silos?

Garcia: “The silos have been driven by some of the more mainstream groups. So to the credit of the justice movement, now more and more people are talking about these issues and working on them.

“There’s a platform that came out called the ‘equitable and just national climate platform’ – big environmental justice groups, indigenous groups, community groups, coming together and putting forth this joint platform of why you need to work on these issues of health, environment and justice as one.

“So I hope people will see that you have to work on both public health and environmental issues.”


What is the degree of overlap between climate deniers and Covid deniers?

Costley:  “Generally speaking, these two groups of people overlap at least politically, at least in the way they’re being represented in the media. They typically fall on the political right – these are very broad generalizations.

“And many of the people who deny how bad Covid is or could be are also climate deniers and interestingly, a large percentage of tweets that are sent out denying climate change are sent out from bots or fake accounts, and the majority of tweets denying how bad Covid-19 is, when studied by academics, are also sent out from fake accounts or bots. That could also be shaping our – at least for those of us who spend a large amount of time online – perception of how these two groups overlap.

“But when you look at least politically at the people who are protesting for the economy to re-open and not wearing masks, [they] are also some of the same people who are typically climate deniers.”


Beyond the cumulative impacts of legislation, what US policies from the state or federal level would have the most positive impacts to ameliorate social determinants of health?

Garcia: “On a federal level is the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

“One of the successes groups are celebrating right now is that a judge shut down two pipelines – the Standing Rock and Atlantic Coastline pipelines. They used NEPA to fight these pipeline by saying the industry didn’t look at the impacts to the indigenous community. So it was a way for them to stop the pipeline from going forward until an assessment is done.

“So NEPA when used correctly and complied with is a huge push.

“Also I see more local legislation, like in California they just passed a mandate that says by 2045 manufacturers can only sell electric vehicles. In Portland, Oregon, a clean energy fund was passed at the pushing of environmental justice groups. In New York state the climate leadership and community protection act [is about] going to 100% carbon free electricity by 2040. And New York just pulled together a climate advisory board with representatives from frontline communities and community groups across the country.

“Thirty states and the [District of Columbia] have some type of climate legislation that tries to reduce the health and climate impacts, and a lot of them are focused on communities of color.

“Congress passed huge climate legislation in the House.

“We can go further, but there is a real attempt to get at reducing the health impacts and a lot of them are focused on communities of color.”



Banner image by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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