Living in Alabama, a state bordered by the Gulf Coast, it is hard not to reflect on climate change and the environmental justice calamities that have been at the forefront of 2020. The pandemic has brought death to every corner of the world—and, as anticipated, vulnerable and marginalized communities have faced the highest death and infection rates. Next came the wildfires. So much of the world and the United States have been burning that adequate description conjures apocalyptic visions. Now we are in the midst of a historic hurricane season, battering the Gulf Coast over and again. There have been so many named storms this year that the twenty-five alphabetical names have been used up and we’re now on to using Greek letters to designate them. As I write, we anxiously await the arrival of Zeta.
This year Mother Nature has previewed the destruction that is to come if climate change worsens and we continue to act as if humans are not its cause. Denial of climate change is not dissimilar to the denialism that causes so many to refuse to wear a mask and social distance to contain the spread of COVID-19. Denial doesn’t prevent bad things from happening, and ignoring reality has caused traumatic consequences around the world. Lack of action will cause all of us to have the blood of future generations on our hands. And people are suffering now.
People living in communities plagued by environmental and climate injustice are already experiencing the effects of climate change—on the heels, for many, of having been traumatized by industrial pollution that has sickened them with cancers and other illnesses. Many in these communities are already doing what Charles Sabel and David G. Victor advise and are pursuing local climate activism and action. At the same time, many are also running up against the limits of what it is possible to achieve locally when global actions by states and moneyed corporations are stacked against them.
In Lowndes County, Alabama, climate change and a lack of adequate sanitation have intersected catastrophically. This county between Selma and Montgomery has a long history of racial terror, but its residents emerged as leaders during the civil rights era, helping to catalyze a political movement while the odds were against them. Today people in the county have emerged as activists against the neglect of rural communities while seeking environmental justice and climate justice. A few years ago, a peer-reviewed study found evidence of hookworm—a tropical parasite usually associated with the developing world—in fecal samples submitted by residents after a number of people were sickened mysteriously. Failed or no wastewater infrastructure was the culprit. The wastewater technology that is mandated by the state does not take into account the effects of climate change, such as rising water tables, extreme weather events, and increased rain. These climate change effects exacerbate inequalities already present as a result of poverty and state neglect, including the antiquated infrastructure, inadequate housing, and health disparities. The most vulnerable will suffer first, but no one is immune to the consequences of inaction.
In Florida, known for its many warm days and beautiful beaches, sea-level rise is already evident. As in Lowndes County, the groundwater is rising too. In Miami-Dade County, $3 billion worth of septic tanks infrastructure is failing, according to the Miami Herald. The leaky tanks are complicit in contaminating the aquifers which provide drinking water. Sea-level rise is also causing wealthier residents to move to higher ground, displacing people of color who are longtime residents of places such as Overtown, Little Haiti, and Elizabeth City. Segregated policies reinforced by redlining relegated people of color to these communities. Now climate gentrification is controlling where they can live once again.
In Alaska, water and sewer lines are being exposed and twisted because of thawing permafrost. Many Indigenous communities have never received water or wastewater infrastructure. The village of Newtok, for example, has no running water. With no toilets, people rely on five-gallon buckets to deal with their waste, which then goes into a pit or hole. Now the town is being relocated because increasing temperatures are causing the ground to melt out from under its homes.
In the Navajo Nation reservation that spans Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah, many homes are likewise without running water or wastewater infrastructure. High rates of COVID-19 infection have underscored how difficult this makes it for residents to ensure something as simple as adequate handwashing.
In all of these stories, the people least responsible for climate change are the most impacted. It is the poor and marginalized who are, globally, most likely to be found in flood-prone areas, in heat islands, and in areas prone to wildfires, sea-level rise, pollution, and extreme weather.
In 2015, at the Twenty-First Conference of the Parties where the Paris Agreement was negotiated, the question was raised of how to help those for whom disaster brought about by climate change is not something that is coming but something that is already here. Although fortunately the 196 representatives agreed upon a plan to reduce climate change, this remains an open question not fully addressed by the agreement. Clearly, reductions in emissions are necessary to prevent further damage to communities already suffering in the United States, but that’s not enough.
In a hopeful sign, the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force on Climate Change acknowledged the unequal damage done by climate change: “The impacts of climate change are not evenly distributed in our society or our economy. Communities of color, low-income families, and indigenous communities have long suffered disproportionate and cumulative harm from air pollution, water pollution, and toxic sites.” This statement is an excellent first step. To begin mitigating the injury, the United States should prioritize exposed, fence-line, frontline, and vulnerable communities. To rectify the harm, we must invest in making those communities more resilient to the impacts of climate crisis while providing for the documentation and remediation of health impacts, all while rejoining the Paris Agreement and ratifying the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol. Americans can lead the way in ensuring climate and environment justice now and for generations to come.