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Is Climate Change Racist?

We need social justice to achieve environmental justice.

A contrast between a fertile and barren land under the blue sky
Environmental racism is the disproportionate exposure of people of color to environmental hazards

Source: Veeterzy [13]

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Jakarta — Environmental racism can be jarring to some.

After all, how can the environment be racist?

One thing for sure, our physical environment is not racist. The term environmental racism is used to acknowledge the disproportionate exposure of people of color to environmental hazards as a result of numerous factors, ranging from lack of institutional power to intentional neglect, according to Greenaction [1,2].

Consequently, people of color suffer from increased health risks and overall lower quality of life, as you will see later on.

Systemic racism fuels environmental racism

Air pollution
Historically, communities of color have consistently been on the receiving end of pollution.

Source: Pixabay [14]

Historically, communities of color have consistently been on the receiving end of pollution. In the U.S, 56% of the population who live in neighborhoods with toxic release inventory facilities are people of color who have minimal or no political clout to block this [1].

A recent study also found that Black and Hispanic Americans bear what is called a “pollution burden”, as they are exposed to an average of 60% of excess air pollution relative to their consumption in contrast to their white counterparts who breathe in 17% less air pollution than they produce [3].

But perhaps one of the most prominent examples of environmental racism in recent years is none other than the Flint water crisis. To many people, what unfolded in Flint is another powerful example of how systemic racism fuels environmental racism. Flint is a majority-black city, where 40% of its residents live in poverty, thus the water crisis is inextricable from whom it affects; in its two zip codes where children’s blood tests revealed high levels of lead, 60% of residents are reported black [4].

Environmental racism on a global scale: Indonesia

Tegallalang Rice Terrace, Indonesia
Indonesia is riddled with environmental problems, but are we the only perpetrators?

Source: Maksim Shutov [15]

Globalisation has made it possible for corporations to maximize profits by going through countries with the least government and environmental regulations and the best tax incentives.

Indonesia is the ultimate hotspot.

Grasberg Mine located in West Papua is one of the world’s biggest gold and copper mines, but it’s majority-owned by Freeport McMoRan, a Phoenix-based company. How a company located so far away can have nearly total control over Indonesia’s natural resources is baffling, but what is clear is that their unsustainable way of extraction has turned thousands of hectares of forest into wastelands and destroyed aquatic life in the once-crystal waters of the highlands [5]. Not to mention, this transformation has also put the indigenous community at risk of becoming “an anthropological museum exhibit of a bygone culture” [6].

Chucks of wood from logging
More than half of the Sumatran rainforests have disappeared since 1985.

Source: Anton Bozhina [16]

Now rising up that list of concerns is deforestation. The deforestation rate in Indonesia has doubled over the past decade, with most of that increase driven by pulp and paper in addition to the palm oil industry [7]. Evidently, more than half of the Sumatran rainforests have disappeared since 1985. What’s interesting is that there has been an influx of products made from Sumatran trees in the U.S markets, namely toilet paper.

While both economies have benefited enormously, this unsustainable level of production has raised legitimate environmental and social concerns given that Sumatran rainforests are a biodiversity hotspot and home to several indigenous communities whose survival and livelihood depend on these forests [8].


Source: Our World in Data [9]

And let’s not forget climate change. As shown in the chart above, we can see that China is the world’s largest CO2 emitter followed by the U.S [9]. However, the United Nations warned that if climate change were to accelerate, extreme weather would take a much larger toll in developing countries, particularly in Africa and Asia.

"Climate change is happening now and to all of us. No country or community is immune,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres. “And, as is always the case, the poor and vulnerable are the first to suffer and the worst hit” [10].

Take Jakarta for example. One of its biggest problems in recent years is floodings, which can increase in frequency and intensity as a result of climate change [11]. To exacerbate the problem, Indonesia has also become a new dumping ground for unwanted plastic from Australia, Europe and North America ever since China banned its imports. In 2018, our imported plastic waste doubled to 320,000 tonnes over the previous year [12].

Workers trying to work their way through all the trash in a landfill in South Tangerang
Indonesia has become a new dumping ground for the world's unwanted plastic.

Source: Tom Fisk [17]

The problem is, Indonesia can barely cope with its own waste. A World Bank study estimates that 20% of its plastic ends up in local rivers, increasing flood risks as drainage systems get clogged. While many lives are affected, low-income communities will be hit the hardest not only because they live in close proximity to rivers, but waste deposition from floods can also become a breeding ground for diseases [11,12].

Without significant actions from these polluting countries, the future where Jakarta is the fastest-sinking in the world can no longer be considered as a possibility, but a reality that is going to arrive much sooner than 2050.


Social justice is the key to environmental justice

For a long time, with or without us knowing, we have been part of a system, which has enriched others while impoverishing others. But it’s important to note that this system is functioning as designed so there is room for change and the time has come for us to fight for this change. Let’s create a future where everyone can live in confidence that their home is safe and their rights are respected.

Climate change protest banner

Source: Markus Spiske [18]


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