Systemic Racism and Climate Change

Systemic Racism and Climate Change

By Barbara Coenen

Protecting our environment has been my top priority since I attended my first Earth Day in Milwaukee in 1967. In 1967, it was all about using the most environmentally friendly dish soap and clothes detergent and learning about drinking water treatment processes.

In 2020, it’s about working as hard as we can to save the Earth for our children. That was my priority until May 25, when I watched the horrific murder of George Floyd.

Indeed, that was the day systemic racism in America became my main focus. It was the day I began to educate myself about the history and manifestation of systemic racism in America. Systemic racism manifests itself by the negative impacts of climate change on communities of color.

Racial Inequality and Climate Change

Penn State meteorologist Gregory Jenkins states, “racism is inexorably linked to climate change because it dictates who benefits from activities that produce planet-warming gases and who suffers most from the consequences.”

systemic racism and climate change
Many expressways pass through inner city neighborhoods filing the air with exhaust and other pollutants

Studies show residents in many brown and black neighborhoods in America live with far more air pollution than they produce from actions like driving and using electricity. By contrast, many white neighborhoods experience better air quality than the national average, even though their driving and electricity use contributes more pollutants.

Additionally, discriminatory housing policies, e.g. “redlining,” created distressed neighborhoods.  For example, these areas typically have vacant lots, more pavement, fewer trees and higher average temperatures.  In combination, these characteristics can lead to deadly heat illnesses.

Systemic racism and racial inequality also mean the people most at risk from climate change have the fewest resources to deal with the results of climate change.

Climate Change’s Impact on Neighborhoods of Color

Consider the following.  Over thirty percent (30%) of black New Orleans residents didn’t own cars when Hurricane Katrina hit.  Such conditions not only made them less mobile, it made it next to impossible for them to evacuate. The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies conducted the study following Katrina.  (Just think about what that must have felt like for those people trying to save themselves and their families.)

systemic racism and climate change
Unintended consequences of post WWII housing projects was a loss of neighborhood community on a human scale.

Neighborhoods in Pittsburgh offer additional examples of the negative impacts of climate change on neighborhoods of color. Heather McClain, an environmental justice organizer, states: “Black communities, which already face disinvestment of critical resources like public transportation and access to health care, are being over policed and underserved.”

In East Pittsburgh, an oil and gas company is attempting to join with U.S. Steel.  Together they want to build a fracking well pad in the community.  This is the same community that has experienced generations of air pollution from steel mills.

I believe Joylette Portlock, executive director of Sustainable Pittsburgh, sums it up best. She states, “Systemic racism is not limited to one system. Unequal treatment in our housing, education, health care and economic systems creates a lack of resources and options for where and how people live. There are many causal problems, none of which are easy to fix. …They require dedicated action to look for and remediate the unjust systems that support these inequities.”

Let’s get busy!

Courtesy of the Rossmoor News, September 23, 2020.  Email Barbara Coenen at

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