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Why Climate Progress & Racial Justice Are So Deeply Connected

At Seventh Generation, we spend a lot of time thinking about the future. Not the future a few months from now, or next year, but the future seven generations from now. In everything we do, we are fighting for a future that is healthier, more equitable, and more sustainable than the world we live in today. 

Because we cannot accept things the way they are.

For the past several years, we have increasingly used our voice to advocate for Climate Justice & Equity because the global climate crisis is having devastating impacts on our world right now. What’s worse, in the United States and around the world, the crisis is not impacting people equally. Vulnerable and marginalized communities like communities of color, the elderly, children, and low-income communities are being hit first and hardest by the climate crisis [1].

Environmental racism has long meant that Black communities, other communities of color, and low-income populations are more likely to experience negative health impacts due to pollution [2]. Why? The factories and industries responsible for creating pollution that’s harmful to human health are built close to the communities where these populations live. Many of these same communities are also more likely to experience devastating health and housing impacts from extreme weather. This is especially true in the hurricane-prone Gulf states where new research shows that not only are low-income communities predominantly communities of color, they’re less likely to have the needed insurance to aid with flood or storm damage. Consequently, the people and families who live there are also less likely to be able to evacuate when a storm arrives or recover economically before the next storm is darkening the horizon [3]

We see similar impacts suffered by Indigenous communities, such as in the Navajo nation in the Southeast, where reckless uranium mining for weapons production has created debilitating health problems such as kidney failure and cancer [4]. One recent study found that 27% of residents had heightened levels of uranium in their system, more than five times the U.S. average. This is just one of the many examples of how impacts of resource extraction continue to disproportionately affect Indigenous Americans.

These disparate climate impacts are caused by and exacerbate long-standing inequalities in American life. Which is why the solutions needed to address the climate crisis must not only lower emissions, they must also boldly tackle inequity. Those who are most impacted by the negative effects of the climate crisis must be at the center of the solutions we seek. In our actions to make our communities carbon-free, we must also make them more resilient, more connected, and more livable. In the face of such staggering injustice, it’s clear that we must divest from the systems that continue to pour fuel on the fire of climate change and instead invest in renewable energy systems that will help us create a healthy future for all people.

But inequality doesn’t only cause disproportionate impacts when we’re talking about climate. It’s true for health in general. The Navajo Nation was one of the areas hardest hit by COVID-19. In early May it even surpassed New York state for the highest COVID-19 infection rate in the U.S. These disproportionate impacts have also seen within Black communities in this crisis [5]. Black people in America are dying of COVID-19 at a rate 3X greater than white people. New research shows that air pollution increases a person’s chances of contracting COVID-19 and that communities of color are more likely to live in polluted areas [6].

Couple this with a lack of access to health care diagnostics and treatment, bias in the medical system, and increased likelihood of underlying conditions and you arrive at a hard truth: while everyone is susceptible to the virus, Black people are impacted more severely and in higher numbers. Similar causes and effects can also be seen in the recent lead crisis in Flint, Michigan’s water supply [7]. While we work to develop treatments and a safe, effective vaccine for COVID-19, we also need to invest in fixing the systemic problems in our health care system, in our economy, and in our communities that caused such disparate impacts in the first place.

When we look at racial inequality through a climate lens, it’s easy to see how systemic injustice is deadly. Our broken criminal justice system has shown us this for years. For instance, a recent study found that police in the United States are 3.5X more likely to use force against Black people than they are against White people [8]. And in Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed when a police officer knelt on his neck for more than 8 minutes, the police used force against Black people 7X more often than White people [9]. Additionally, systems like cash bail have a disproportionate impact on poor communities of color, trapping many in an unforgiving cycle of criminalized poverty [10]. These impacts are caused by and exacerbate the same inequalities seen in the climate crisis.

At Seventh Generation, we have been taking a hard look at our role as a business when it comes to confronting both the climate crisis and the systemic racism in this country.  

As part of our efforts to support struggling communities during COVID-19, Seventh Generation committed $1.2M in in-kind product donations, a portion of which went directly to members of the Navajo Nation and Oglala Sioux Tribes. Our first step in a long journey of repair. We are proud to continue to partner with Indigenous communities in our advocacy for Climate Justice & Equity and by providing grant funding for Indigenous led initiatives via the Seventh Generation Foundation.

We are newer to the fight for racial justice for Black Americans, but as we explained above, we can easily see how there are parallels in the injustices the Black community faces and in our work in Climate Justice & Equity. As a first step in our response to this current moment, we made a public statement and declared our support for the protestors putting themselves on the line to take a stand for racial justice right now. We made a $100K donation to The Bail Project to ensure the safe and quick release of protestors across the nation. Further, we’re fighting hard to protect voting rights during this critical election year. We believe that we have an incredible opportunity to elect responsible leaders who will, at all levels of government, begin building healthier, more sustainable, and more equitable communities by dismantling the violent systems that unfairly target those who are most vulnerable. To help protect the rights of all voters, we’re calling for Voting from Home to be an option for all registered voters and asking elected officials to ensure that upcoming COVID-19 response packages include funding that helps states take action to protect voter rights.

Today, the Black Lives Matter movement and others are calling for us to Defund the Police. The reaction to this call has been mixed, in part because of a fear that decreased police budgeting could result in more crime. A close look at the numbers, though, actually reveals why this has the potential to be an impactful solution. Consider this: Between 1982 and 2006, US expenditures on policing quadrupled [11]. According to the ACLU, of the over 10.3 million arrests that happen each year, only 5% are for violent offenses. Yet in cities around the country, the police budget accounts for as much as 50% of local spending [12]. This needs to change.

A parallel call can be heard when climate activists everywhere, including Seventh Generation, have long called for divestment from the fossil fuel industry, which for generations has been harmful to the planet and the people on it—especially people of color. While this idea may once have seemed radical, divestment from an entrenched and harmful reliance on fossil fuels is now seen as a needed step to building healthier people and healthier communities. Those funds can then be re-invested in creating green jobs and infrastructure, nurturing human health, and building a safety net so that those most affected can recover and restart [13]. This situation is no different. At Seventh Generation it is our belief that we as a Nation need to begin divesting from police expenditures so that we can begin reinvesting in Black communities and communities of color. This includes creating clean, renewable, and resilient energy systems that will directly benefit these communities.

As we look to the future and continue to fight for the health of future generations, we see the potential for a more just and equitable society. A society in which all communities are able to thrive because we’ve divested from systems that cause harm and invested in solutions that create a healthier, more sustainable, and just world for all.

 

[1] https://minorityrights.org/wp-content/uploads/old-site-downloads/download-524-The-Impact-of-Climate-Change-on-Minorities-and-Indigenous-Peoples.pdf

[2] https://www.aafa.org/burden-of-asthma-on-minorities/

[3] https://cdn.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/ExtremeWeather.pdf

[4] https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/04/10/473547227/for-the-navajo-nation-uranium-minings-deadly-legacy-lingers

[6] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/07/climate/air-pollution-coronavirus-covid.html

[7] https://www.nrdc.org/stories/flint-water-crisis-everything-you-need-know

[9] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/06/03/us/minneapolis-police-use-of-force.html

[10] https://www.google.com/search?client=firefox-b-1-d&q=systems+like+cash+bail+have+a+disproportionate+impact+on+poor+communities+of+color%2C+trapping+many+in+a+cycle+of+criminalized+poverty

[11] https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/231096.pdf

[12] https://www.aclu.org/news/criminal-law-reform/reimagining-the-role-of-police/

[13] https://350.org/category/topic/divestment/

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