Environmental racism is defined as the discrimination of low-income and minority communities on environmental grounds, exposing said communities to degraded land, pollution and the effects of climate change. Deep-seeded in history, this issue is still playing out today at both the national and international level.
This type of discrimination occurs worldwide, but the U.S is one of the most shocking examples when it comes to modern and historical environmental racism.
Despite legislative efforts to eliminate environmental racism in the U.S since 1964, namely Title VI of the Civil Rights Act outlawing discrimination on environmental grounds, the battle is ongoing. Lack of regulation and urban planning has resulted in minority communities being exposed to heightened levels of pollution, with black children being twice as likely to having asthma than white children, and almost half of America’s Hispanic population living in areas that fail to meet EPA air quality standards.
Throughout the past two decades the EPA has been found to have rejected 9 out of 10 pollution complaints from minority communities, never once finding a business in breach of Title VI regardless of several air, water and land pollution crises.
These concerns are now destined to fall on deafer ears as the EPA Environmental Justice program faces cuts from the Trump Administration, a program specifically tasked with recognising and addressing the disproportionate adverse environmental effects faced by both low-income and minority populations.
Another example of such discrimination is the redirection of the North Dakota Access pipeline. The original proposed route crossed the Missouri river once, minimising the potential for spillage into the river, yet still putting the drinking water supply of the majority white population of Bismarck at risk. Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) then saw it fit to reroute the pipeline through indigenous Sioux Boundary land, crossing the Missouri river four times, one of which is the Lake Oahe reservoir providing the Standing Rock Sioux people their drinking water. Those expressing their right to protest were met with violence and arrested for engaging-in-riot and trespass charges, despite protesting peacefully and the pipeline crossing through Sioux land pertaining to the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie. This demonstrated that ETP were willing to violate long established treaties and that they valued some communities more than others.
Relentless demonstrations and solidarity did pay off in December 2016 when construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline was called to a halt, forcing the discussion for alternate routes, however this victory was short-lived as the decision was reversed by Trump just days into his presidency.
Similarly, the Bayou Bridge pipeline (also being built by Energy Transfer Partners) once completed will cross 700 bodies of water, 600 acres of which is primordial swamp, the oldest swamp in North America. These bodies of water also provide drinking water, this time to approx. 300,000 people including the United Houma Nation tribe of Louisiana but, much like at Standing Rock, ETP are more than willing to violate the environmental rights of indigenous peoples and of the majority African American communities along this pipeline’s route.
A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) study found that the 2016 Louisiana floods were made 40% more likely due to anthropogenic climate change. The Bayou Bridge would not only contribute to climate change overall, but also physically destroy natural flood defences and disrupt the flow of the Atchafalaya Basin with spoil banks, further increasing the risk of flooding of local communities.
These rights have been relentlessly violated in the past too despite both minority cultures having several treaties and laws laid down specifically to safeguard their rights to land, clean water and clean air.
The 1830 Indian Removal Act is just one of many violations, with President Jackson endorsing the expulsion of tens of thousands of Native Americans from their ancestral lands between 1830 and 1850. The agreement was that in exchange for their land Native American tribes would be given lands West of the Mississippi, however this land was often of considerably poorer quality than the home they had left. The signing of the Act had justified federal and national hostility against Native American tribes, with those refusing to relocate faced with conflict, all so that colonial-Americans could have access to quality farmland and natural resource troves deep beneath tribal lands.
This bell of historical state-sanctioned injustice still rings true in President Trump’s reestablishment of the Dakota Access Pipeline and the subsequent forceful eviction of Standing Rock Sioux protesters, as well as giving the green-light to TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline despite its unamended permit being denied twice before.
According to the Native American Rights Fund, said permit failed to provide analysis/account for; trust obligations; treaty rights; potential impact on hunting and fishing rights; potential impacts on the Rosebud Sioux Tribe’s unique water system; potential impact of spills on tribal citizens; potential impact on cultural sites in the path of the pipeline (which is in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act, and the National Historic Preservation Act.)
Side-note: Job creation is the typical wind behind such political sails and though it is worth saying these projects will create thousands of jobs during construction (Keystone XL creating approx. 21,050 national and local jobs over a 2-year period, 3,900 of which being construction jobs), once completed the State Department estimates only 35 permanent jobs will be available for the pipeline’s operations and management. A similar fate befalls the new 163-mile section of the Bayou Bridge; thousands of jobs in the short term, 12 of which are estimated to be permanent.
In regards to the wider world unsustainable expansions like this, and others such as fossil fuel endeavours and unsustainable government action, in any developed country is set to disproportionately affect developing nations. For instance, countries south of Sudan and island nations in the South Pacific will face the full brunt of climate change whereas the countries driving it will comparatively receive lesser impacts.
Researchers have also found that pollution from Europe is partly responsible for the severe drought in India in 2000, where sulphur dioxide emissions from coal-fired power stations in the Northern Hemisphere altered the tropical rain band, causing a 40% reduction in rainfall. Emissions from the US and East Asia were also considerable contributors to this.
As climate change progresses the effects will get less and less local. We all need to get a handle on this, especially those most responsible, instead of palming climate change’s ill-effects onto the systemically discriminated. These two issues are inherently linked because of systemic racism, so much so that international unity in tackling climate change would go a long way in creating a truly equal humanity.