EARTH & US: Environmental Injustice – Race, Class, & Climate Change

by Cathy Holt

“We have flown the air like birds and swum the sea like fishes, but have yet to learn the simple act of walking the earth like brothers.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

william-barber-iiiWilliam Barber III, the lawyer son of the powerful Reverend William Barber II, was a fitting speaker for Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Asheville. He is co-chair of the NC Poor People’s Campaign Ecological Devastation Committee, as well as the strategic partnerships associate at The Climate Reality Project started by Al Gore (  

Barber focused on King’s later years in which he pointed to the three intersecting evils of racism, militarism and poverty, right during the height of the Vietnam War. It was a time when many people criticized King for broadening the focus from racial issues to take on these other pillars of U.S. corporate power. King even said that the world is “doomed” if we neglect these evils. Now, Barber maintains, we must look at the intersectionality of climate, racism, and poverty, which he did with many telling map-images. The areas of the U.S. with the worst heat events overlap greatly with the areas of highest poverty and those with most people of color, especially in the historic “Black belt” in the southeast. “Three of the top five biggest greenhouse gas polluters generating electricity are in the South,” he added: Duke, Southern, and Dynergy.
An intersectional analysis, Barber pointed out, is people-centered, acknowledges the disproportional impact on oppressed people, and identifies intersecting oppressions. “Climate Justice” connects the environmental crisis with other social and economic crises. The root causes are fossil fuel exploitation for profit, structural racism, and social inequality. “Environmental Justice” means not just equal levels of exposure to environmental toxins, regardless of race or income, he stressed–but also equal access to power in decision-making about these issues. 
Environmental and Climate Injustice
In 1982 in Warren County, NC, a mostly African-American, low income group protested the PCB Landfill Project, which went ahead anyway. Barber showed a film clip of police forcibly arresting protesters who were blocking the road, and letting huge trucks dump their payload of toxins on the ground. This was one of the earlier incidences of environmental racism and injustice. Since then, as we know, many protective environmental regulations have been rolled back (especially since 2017). 
Now, 97 of the 100 counties projected to suffer the worst impacts of climate are located in the South! The others are in the Midwest. Impacts include crops lost, heat waves, droughts, floods, and landslides. Lightning-ignited wildfires are projected to increase by 30%, by 2060 in the Southeast. “People talk about the expense of solving the climate issue,” said Barber. “But look at the cost of NOT solving it!” The economic cost of the crisis in the last 2 years alone, he pointed out, was $653 billion, not including the human cost of suffering and lives lost. 
Climate Refugees
Soils in the U.S. South, Mexico, and Central America are projected to become extremely dry. El Salvador and Honduras already are too drought-stricken to grow food, forcing people to flee by the thousands due to hunger. Drought caused by temperature rise has a huge impact on staple crops such as corn, rice, and wheat. The Global South–including Africa, South Asia, many island nations, Mexico, Central-South America, and the Middle East (minus Israel)–is hit worst of all, while having contributed the least to causing the crisis since their fossil fuel use has been so much lower. The immigration crisis to come will be huge. “What will the Global North’s moral response be?” Barber wondered. Taking responsibility and showing compassion for climate victims, or building walls?
Health effects
According to the Declaration on Climate Change and Health (2017), the elderly and babies are those most likely to die during extreme heat events.
A shocking 78% of African Americans in the US live within 30 miles of a coal plant today. Black kids have twice the rate of asthma as white kids, while their death rate from asthma is ten times higher. This is an example of how environmental injustice is compounded by issues of poverty and lack of access to medical care, Barber pointed out. African Americans live with 21% more air pollution than the average American.
The Zika virus is expected to spread through the south and southeast (all the way up to New Jersey!) and there are other tropical diseases being found in the south already.
Pipeline “incidents”—frequent leaks and spills of oil and methane—have caused deaths and disease as well. Where are pipelines routed? You guessed it—through low-income communities of color, disproportionately. For example, the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline would pass through the property of poor farmers, primarily African American and Native owned.
Energy costs
In Georgia, while the average resident pays 5.3% of their income for utilities, the poorest residents pay up to 25% of their income, and that’s not just because their income is lower. It’s also because their homes may be drafty, poorly constructed, not weatherized, and thus cost more to both heat and cool. Wealthy energy companies make their money by building infrastructure, like big new plants and pipelines, and then passing those costs on to consumers as rate hikes. 
The “urgency of now”
This phrase of Dr. King was echoed by Barber. He believes that in 2020, we actually have less voting rights than we did in 1965! He reminded us that in 2016, the Supreme Court gutted section 5, so we no longer have full protection of voter rights, and he pointed to the rampant voter suppression (in Democratic and low-income areas, of course) in 2016. In order to elect representatives responsive to our needs, he says, we must build coalitions that can win. Avoid the ”paralysis of analysis” (trying to convince people who resist) and instead, build the movement.
For 2/3 of the world’s people, said Barber, renewable energy is already now cheaper than fossil fuels. So we must show up, speak out and demand it! NC’s Governor Cooper, in Executive Order 80, put forward a Climate Resilience Plan which can make a positive difference. But people must show up and insist it be funded and implemented. We need an environmental policy like the Green New Deal, which recognizes the massive shift necessary to solve the crisis. We must invest in both equity and environmental justice. The Green New Deal does a great job of addressing not only climate change, but also racial and economic inequality.
The Poor People’s Campaign is organizing a national March on Washington on June 20, 2020, and all are urged to attend or help another person attend. It is a national call for moral revival which includes building unity, promoting equal protection, transforming the “War Economy” into a “Peace Economy,” dismantling systemic racism, linking racism and poverty and lifting the leadership of those most affected, and taking direct nonviolent action.

Cathy Holt is a longtime Asheville activist. Subscribe to her blog Earth and Us by sending her an email at

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