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From a Moment to a Movement: Environmental Justice, Climate Justice, and Earth Day, A Global Connection for All

April 16, 2024

The road to understanding how we impact our planet and how that impact affects us has been a long one, and we haven’t reached the end. On April 22nd, the world will celebrate the 55th anniversary of Earth Day.  Coined by former U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson in 1970, Earth Day was established to give environmental issues a national agenda and give the population an environmental conscious.  Leading up to Earth Day, most people weren’t knowledgeable of the impact of environmental hazards.  With the very few environmental regulations signed off by President Richard Nixon during this time, alongside the 1962 publishing of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the world had only just begun to see the inextricable link between human health and environmental danger. 

This year marks the 33rd anniversary of the first National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit that took place in Washington, D.C., where the principles of environmental justice were introduced by community leaders as a means to address human rights and the advancement of equitable policies for disadvantaged populations, broadening the focus from disproportionate exposures to environmental toxins to include other social inequities.  The Environmental Justice Movement started with the community motivated by human rights and the need to alleviate the disproportionate burden of environmental hazards shouldered by people of color.  Founded in the wake of a time when the fight for civil rights was characterized by activism against injustice, brutality, and dehumanization, activists created their own powerful agenda, affirming the right to freedom from environmental harm while protecting “Mother Earth” and defining what it truly means to engage unheard populations based on mutual respect and a belief in justice.

Expanding Our Understanding of Environmental Justice: Climate Justice

As our understanding of environmental justice and what it entails grows, so does the greater appreciation of a subset of environmental justice, climate justice.  Climate change intrinsically affects all our lives in countless ways, and the climate crisis is increasingly acknowledged by more and more people as the movement builds; however, not all climate impacts are distributed equally.  Although strides have been made over the years to mitigate environmental risks and injustices, today Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) and low-income populations continue to be disproportionately burdened by environmental threats that drive health disparities, such as air pollution, hazardous sources of lead, unhealthy housing, unclean water, lack of access to green space, and climate change.  The inequitable effects and disproportionate harm on racially marginalized and low-income groups are defined as the “Climate Gap.”  From food insecurity to heat waves, rising sea levels to community displacement, air pollution to drought, and the exacerbation of health issues, are all affects that have a disproportionate impact on BIPOC and low-income communities. The Climate Justice Movement acknowledges that climate change creates specific, disparate social, racial, economic, and health outcomes for these same populations, who contribute least to the climate crisis. It aims to address the root causes of these issues while creating solutions. 

Systemic factors such as pre-existing health conditions, poverty, racial residential segregation, the lack of political power, the disproportionate impact of pollution, and the siting of hazardous land use and facilities in communities of color and low-income communities make these populations more vulnerable and marginalized in regard to health, economic, and climate consequences.  These conditions make it more difficult for these communities to implement climate resilience and prepare for extreme weather events.  Many of these same communities suffer from the heat island effect, living in urbanized areas with limited greenery and experience higher temperatures than outlying areas. It’s no surprise that low-income households must spend more of their total income on food and energy in comparison to middle- and high-income households. In the face of catastrophic events such as Hurricane Katrina, these communities often lack the transportation needed to escape, often don’t have air conditioning to reduce the heat, and typically lack financial resources and the insurance to rebuild or relocate.

Although climate is associated with ecological influences, there is a human health component, where the physical environment and health are intertwined. The Climate Justice Movement recognizes that climate change is also a health equity issue. BIPOC and low-income populations are at a greater risk for exposures to the extreme weather generated by the climate crisis, have fewer resources to adapt to climate-related threats, and are at an increased risk for climate-related health effects.  Air pollution, housing deficiencies, and other environmental hazards are linked to asthma, chronic diseases, and cancer, and contribute to existing physical and mental health issues, health disparities, and environmental injustices for these populations.  These health inequities strain our existing cost-burdened healthcare systems even more.

The Cost of Climate Injustice Is High

While the social and emotional costs of the Climate Gap are immeasurable, there is still a literal cost; it is high, and it is one that everyone pays to some extent. In 2022, more than $165 billion dollars was spent on climate and weather disasters in the U.S. This number doesn’t include healthcare impacts, death from climate change events, and the displacement of communities.  According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) it’s likely that the cost will continue to increase.  The economic impact affects agriculture, especially in states that are more dependent on livestock and crops for their local economy. States also face the cost of infrastructure repair due to flooding, and the loss of tourism due to severe wildfires and bad air quality. Business and financial markets suffer where extreme weather can damage factories, supply chain operations, transport, and cause water costs to increase due to drought to name a few.

The consequences of climate change are increasingly being recognized by the public, which explains why the movement to address the climate crisis is growing. However, the dynamics of climate change, environmental justice, and the earth cannot be separated. The disparate environment that we all share doesn’t immediately reveal itself. Sustainability for the earth and all populations is needed. A few solutions include the government continuing to invest in resiliency measures and improvement of infrastructure, businesses disclosing operations that pose a climate risk to communities, creating strategies for inclusive climate solutions that include marginalized and vulnerable communities at risk, including children and the elderly, raising awareness of health inequities, and increasing community engagement around these issues.

At Abt, we partner with ministries of health, local organizations, and communities to better understand climate hazards and vulnerabilities. We co-develop approaches to adaptation and mitigation strategies that improve the resilience of systems, communities, and people worldwide. We rely equally on our data and on the insights of communities we partner with to devise equitable, sustainable, and locally tailored solutions to the climate and health challenges.  Climate change has a global impact. As we celebrate Earth Day and the global connection that we all share, let us remember that we all experience the consequences of inaction.

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