We all live on the same planet. We all share a home. It needs to be livable for everyone. Equally.
What is Climate Justice?
Climate justice is becoming a part of the national conversation. More and more, people are realizing the effects of climate change on society across pop culture, politics, mainstream news outlets, kitchen tables, and even corporate headquarters.
Leaders and everyday folks see that climate change doesn’t just affect the polar bears on a far-off iceberg. It shows up in all corners of the country, from Florida to Alaska. And it is more difficult for disadvantaged populations to recover from climate disasters, like wildfires, hurricanes, droughts, and floods.
Often, it is easy for people to view themselves as separate from nature as if we do not feel its impacts. People like to feel as if they are in total control. The fact is, though, we are part of the circle of life and the natural cycles of the earth. Just as the moon affects the tides, the weather affects humans.
It is all a chain reaction. Justice connotes that actions have consequences. Polluting our home with toxins in the water, soil, and air hurts us. On the flip side, taking care to preserve clean air, land, and water provides a safe environment in which to live.
Justice also means fairness for all people, regardless of socioeconomic background, race, age, gender, neighborhood, or other factors. We all deserve a healthy life.
To Understand Climate Justice, We Must Understand Climate Injustice
According to the University of Colorado, “Those who are most affected and have the fewest resources to adapt to climate change are also the least responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions—both globally and within the United States.”
Those people – most often indigenous, Black, brown, and low-income communities – are hit the hardest by effects of the climate crisis. That is climate injustice.
Defining Climate Justice
Climate justice occurs when those who have the most resources to address the climate crisis actually use them to protect vulnerable communities. Climate justice is a part of environmental justice.
The Solutions Project works to ensure that tools for climate justice reach the hands of women and people of color, as they are most often on the frontlines of the climate crisis.
To Achieve Climate Justice, We Must Have Environmental Justice
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, environmental justice “is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.”
Environmental justice means disadvantaged groups do not shoulder the burden of the climate crisis. Instead, they are consulted and supported in environmental decisions that affect them.
The Beginnings of Environmental Justice in the United States
First came the movement to preserve natural resources as commodities and for aesthetic reasons. For example, National Parks were established.
Then came the concern for more residential protections for clean air and water – issues brought to attention from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Nonprofits, movements, and media put the issue on the map, creating public pressure and political will to act. This resulted in the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Throughout the second half of the 20th century, many court cases showed Black communities standing up for their rights to healthy, livable working and living environments. In 1991, the nation’s first book addressing environmental injustices was written by Dr. Robert D. Bullard, a Black professor and the Father of Environmental Justice.
In 1992, the Office of Environmental Equity was established as a subdivision of the EPA. Progress continued – slowly at times – as further legislation and executive orders were enacted on the national, state, and local levels.
The Birth of the Climate Justice Movement
The climate justice movement was born out of the environmental justice movement.
Global warming started being discussed in the 1980s without much urgency, impact, or understanding. We patched up the holes in our ozone, but the greater threat of global warming loomed large.
While the exact origin of the climate justice movement is up for debate, a tangible turning point occurred in the year 2000. That was when the first Climate Justice Summit took place, organized by the Rising Tide network. It was purposely scheduled during the same time as the United Nations’ COP6. However, COP6 was dominated by developed countries creating climate “solutions” for underdeveloped countries.
The Climate Justice Summit was an opportunity for underdeveloped nations, mostly a part of the global south, to speak for themselves about what solutions would realistically work for them. Similar international summits, conferences, and forums followed in subsequent years.
In the past few decades, different terms have been used to describe the worsening shape of our planet based on human activity: “global warming,” “climate change,” and “climate crisis.” These terms, often used interchangeably, refer to the steadily rising average global temperatures since the Industrial Revolution, resulting in extreme weather, rising ocean levels, and vulnerable climate refugees.
In 2005, the slow federal response to Hurricane Katrina’s devastation on underserved communities, followed by the environmental documentary An Inconvenient Truth in 2006, began to awaken the U.S. population to the impacts of global warming on vulnerable communities.
National awareness of global warming spread little by little as climate disasters became more frequent. Grassroots climate leaders emerged but needed support for solutions to take hold. The infrastructure of our country struggled – as it still does – to support the climate solutions craved by the public.
One grassroots movement that began in Europe made its way across the Atlantic in 2019. The world was reminded that a movement could start with one child by Greta Thunberg.
Greta Thunberg skipped school one Friday to sit alone on the steps of the Swedish Parliament, protesting its inadequate action on climate-related issues. Other kids and teens joined her. The movement caught on, creating the School Strike for Climate, also known as Fridays for Future movement.
Its demands prioritize climate equity and justice and acting upon the science to reduce global average temperatures to pre-industrial levels. This youth-led organization is now one of the most well-known climate justice movements in the United States. Grassroots organizations began and continue to sustain the movement today.
The Climate Justice Movement: A Civil Rights Issue
Civil rights guarantee equal protection under the law of all people, regardless of personal background or characteristics. Because the climate crisis is already claiming human lives – mostly the lives of minorities – it is a civil rights issue.
Black and brown communities, women, and indigenous groups are disproportionately affected by the climate crisis. They are the frontline communities affected by it, and systemic roadblocks perpetuate the issue.
Here are just a few examples of climate injustice and the communities affected:
Case Study: Hurricane Katrina, Gulf Coast: 2005
The Gulf Coast is in the natural path of hurricanes. But as touched on previously, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina opened the nation’s eyes to the severity of modern-day hurricanes and the need for adequate preparation and response.
Hurricane Katrina was a category five storm that killed over 1,000 people in the Gulf Coast, many of whom were New Orleans, Louisiana residents. The media was full of photos of Black New Orleans residents stranded on rooftops as the waters rose around them.
A national poll a week after the storm showed that two-thirds of African Americans felt the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina would have been faster “if most of the victims had been white.” Notably, after the storm, New Orleans’ Black population was lower.
Since Hurricane Katrina, hurricane season has seen more powerful storms more often. While some lessons were learned from that fateful event – such as improvements to New Orleans’ infrastructure to prevent future catastrophic flooding – hurricanes continue to pound the Gulf Coast with even more frequency. Low-income, underserved coastal towns continue to be vulnerable to climate disasters.
Case Study: Wildfires and Latinx Communities: 2021
One effect of the climate crisis seen across the globe, particularly in the western United States, is an increase in wildfires. Wildfires are both caused and exacerbated by droughts and strong winds.
Wildfires destroy property and displace families. They are also a public health issue, as they release toxins in the air that threaten those with asthma or lung conditions.
As compared to the U.S. population as a whole, Latinx populations are two times as likely to live in wildfire danger zones. Lack of affordable housing in fire-safe areas is a leading cause of this. Meanwhile, even as wildfires have increased over the past decade, white residents’ exposure to wildfires has decreased.
Increasingly Uninhabitable Native Land: 2021
A Yu’pik village on the Alaskan coast has experienced the permafrost thawing, shifting the ground beneath their feet and infrastructure. They have seen the ocean level rising all the way into their community preschool building and were denied federal assistance to move their preschool to higher ground.
Similar incidents occur in Native communities throughout the country, with minimal help, let alone attention, paid by state or federal agencies.
Environmental Injustice: Protecting Our Communities
The Solutions Project aims to protect disadvantaged communities. We work to create an equitable society for women, Black people, Indigenous communities, and other communities of color. As a result, society as a whole is more prepared for climate change.
Here is how we address environmental justice issues:
We support organizations – and sometimes, organizations need help organizing. One determined person may start movements, but they require collective action by groups. That is what sustains them.
Climate justice leaders need funding, support, mentorship, and the media spotlight. As women and people of color are more likely to get overlooked for their work, they need more uplifting. The Solutions Project shares their wins, offers grants, and connects them to a larger network of allies.
We uplift the voices at the frontlines of the climate crisis. Sometimes we do that by leveraging celebrity connections to echo those voices. When celebrities and influencers hand climate leaders the mic, the climate justice movement gains cultural momentum.
Creating positive change is not all about the obvious external actions. Cultivating internal support means taking care of ourselves and each other. That is how we maintain the motivation and momentum to keep going. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
That is why we also support the following less measurable, but equally important parts of the work:
This is where joy comes in. Tackling environmental injustice is heavy stuff. It can be easy to feel down or overwhelmed. The goal is to make our environment safe for living so that we all may flourish. But why can’t we prioritize laughter, joy, and rejuvenation along the way? Take a breath. If that means blocking out the negative news every once in a while, that’s okay.
Leaning on Your Community
A community means mutual support, emotional and otherwise. Communities get us through tough times. It is important to ask for and accept help. (That’s why we offer grants!) Research groups to participate in. A community can be local, state-wide, nationwide, or global. Volunteering with a nonprofit is a great way to establish community ties.
Environmental Justice Principles
Principles lay out what we are fighting for.
What We Advocate For
In 1991, the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit established its principles of environmental justice, which have guided the movement ever since. These principles affirmed a commitment to justice in the following areas based on the sacredness of the earth:
- Bias-free public policy that supports ecological and cultural health of urban and rural communities
- Responsible use of resources
- Universal protection from hazardous waste
- Self-determination of all people, including that of Native Peoples
- The ceasing of the production of hazardous waste and accountability for those who caused harm
- The right for people of color to participate in all levels of environmental decision making
- Safe work environments, victim compensation, reparations, and health care
- A recognition that environmental justice issues violate the Universal Declaration On Human Rights
- The ceasing any medical experimentation on people of color
- Inclusive education
- Individual efforts toward sustainability
- The opposition to harmful actions perpetrated by multinational corporations and militaries
- The enforcement of these principles
- Principles inform our values, guiding our actions to be in good faith. Values reflect how we advocate for the cause.
When working toward solving these issues, The Solution Project strives to be the following:
Big problems require big solutions. We are not afraid to take risks to tackle the biggest risk of all: an unsafe environment for all communities. We are committed to creative solutions for lasting change.
Our goal is equitable access to natural resources, clean energy, and living environments. We welcome all demographics and individuals who share our goal.
We do not put all our eggs in one basket. Our goals for the climate justice movement utilize the media, grants, and provide resources and connections to support our stakeholders.
The best solutions benefit those who are the most impacted by climate injustice. We prioritize communities on the frontline of the climate crisis. They know what they need better than anyone.
Prioritizing joy prevents burnout. Creating a future in which all can thrive is worth celebrating!
We also advocate for and recognize the impact of feminine leadership, which prioritizes humility, empathy, and respectful relationship building. The world has been run by men and masculine ideas for quite a long time, and it is not representative of society as a whole. (Men can absolutely embody feminine leadership skills as well!)
How to Make an Impact
We embody and promote the bold, resourceful, equitable, and joyful inclusivity of the climate justice movement. Our environmental justice examples include the following:
- Giving grants to fund community organizing, resistance to fossil fuels, and other efforts led by women and people of color with the aim of 100% clean energy and access to clean water, soil, and air for all.
- Raising awareness by centering climate solutions in pop culture conversations. For example, we premiered a green home improvement show featuring Don Cheadle and Mark Ruffalo.
- Refocusing media narratives to climate change makers and their solutions. We provide media training to help prep women and people of color to get their messages across.
- Supporting frontline leaders in their efforts to get state and federal governments to sign off on policies centering climate justice.
Representing the movement in leadership positions on a national scale. For example, Shalanda H. Baker is a former chair of The Solutions Project and an advocate for anti-racist energy policies as the the Deputy Director for Energy Justice in the U.S. Department of Energy.
Want to get involved, make a change, and support The Solutions Project?
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Nothing happens without movements. We have your back as you create yours.