Black Lives Matter in the Climate Movement

We have come to the time when the United States is having yet another reckoning with racist institutions that have pervaded since its founding. Corporations, sports teams, and brands alike have been publicly re-evaluating their policies to declare how they “stand with the Black community.” While preliminary policy changes are a start, what is really needed is a more thorough investigation of what it means to be anti-racist.  Especially for corporations, anti-racism should also be incorporated into climate mitigation efforts. While it may seem that climate change activism has taken a backseat in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter Movement, how we address these issues can help forge a path forward for the climate movement.

Black Americans are more likely to bear impacts of climate change such as extreme weather and are more likely to be concerned about climate change than non-Hispanic White Americans.USGCRP, 2018; “Which Racial/Ethnic Groups Care Most about Climate Change?,” n.d. Black Americans are often more likely to be concerned about climate change through increased exposure to environmental hazards from polluting industries that are disproportionately located in Black neighborhoods.NAACP | Fumes Across the Fence-Line, n.d. The connection between environmental exploitation and racism has existed at least since the 19th century when newly freed Black men were funneled into convict leasing programs and were forced to work in coal mines and supply the Confederacy with coal.Tuana, 2019 More recently, a New York Times article cited a study that found a link between climate change and increased premature births specifically affecting Black mothers.Climate Change Tied to Pregnancy Risks, Affecting Black Mothers Most – The New York Times, n.d. The study found that women exposed to higher temperatures or air pollution were more likely to face pregnancy risks resulting in premature, underweight, or stillborn babies and this phenomenon is affecting Black mothers at a higher rate.Climate Change Tied to Pregnancy Risks, Affecting Black Mothers Most – The New York Times, n.d. This finding becomes even more troubling when one acknowledges the disproportionately high maternal mortality rate among Black women. 

Historically, environmental activism within communities of color has sprung up, in response to harmful environmental hazards disproportionately located in their communities. The mainstream environmental movement of the 1970s, led by a mostly middle-class, white community, did not address the role of environmental racism in environmental issues at the time. It is widely cited that the environmental justice movement as we know it began in 1982 with the protest of the siting of a PCB Landfill in Warren County, North Carolina in a predominantly Black community.US EPA, 2015 Warren County felt that they were targeted to host hazardous waste based on their demographic characteristics.Environmental Justice History Other communities across the United States identified with the struggles of the Warren County community which led to the establishment of a national, multicultural coalition and the launch of the environmental justice movement.Environmental Justice History Since then, there have been several attempts to get federal environmental justice legislation passed such as the Environmental Justice for All Act. A new report released by Democrats in Congress details an aggressive plan of action against climate change including key environmental justice provisions and acknowledgment of the role of systemic inequalities in the climate crisis. The first page of the report acknowledges the murder of George Floyd and cites the protests following his death as “reminders of the consequences of past inaction.” While the recent climate agenda is promising, the centering of marginalized communities must continue to take place even after the protests have ended and climate change continues to progress.

There is still much work to be done within the spaces we occupy to advocate for climate change. Environmental justice non-profit organizations receive a minuscule amount of funding, compared to other environmental non-profits. One study found that out of the 1.34 billion dollars awarded to environmental non-profits by 12 national foundations, only 18 million dollars were awarded to environmental justice non-profit organizations.Environmental Justice and Philanthropy: Funding Disparity, n.d. This accounts for slightly more than one percent of the total funding.Environmental Justice and Philanthropy: Funding Disparity, n.d.

In order to successfully center Black communities in environmental advocacy, it is imperative that we allocate more resources to environmental organizations with Black individuals on the executive boards and staff. A recent article found that 3.7 percent of the 12,054 environmental nonprofits studied released diversity data and only 2.1 percent revealed racial/ethnic data.Taylor et al., 2019 The study also found that environmental justice organizations were more likely to release diversity data than other environmental non-profits.Taylor et al., 2019 In order for the climate movement to successfully center Black communities, inclusion must be first prioritized within advocacy organizations. Making the necessary changes within the non-profit sphere to dismantle the racial disparities in access to resources will allow the climate change movement to become anti-racist.

Black climate activists and environmental organizations are now called to advocate for climate action and address repercussions of systemic racism simultaneously. In order to truly build a more sustainable future, the climate movement must recognize that the best plan of action is one that prioritizes dismantling structural racism everywhere, including in spaces of environmental advocacy.