What do Scott Morrison, Jair Bolsanaro and Donald Trump have in common? Well, they are all national leaders who have been accused of climate change denial and racism in their terms in office. The countries under their leadership are severely affected by climate change, suffering through January’s Australian bushfires, 2019’s Amazonian wildfires and the US’s current droughts. These countries were established on foundations of systemic racism and indigenous genocide, perpetrated under colonial rule. These are unequal and unjust places; places where the wealth gap is ever increasing, and white privilege is written into the system. It’s a global truth, but clearer at these extremes: pollution and climate change disproportionately affect low income families and communities of colour.
This is not purely bad luck. It’s a result of environmental catastrophe reinforcing existing social inequality and economic disparity. Dr Robert Bullard, father of the environmental justice movement, describes this situation: ‘discrimination and racism continue to dictate who gets dumped on and who gets resources to mitigate floods, wildfires and other disasters.’
We need look no further than Flint, Michigan, where a financially motivated switch of city water sources to untreated river water left low income, predominantly Black communities with undrinkable, lead-poisoned water for over six years. Or consider the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005: the category three hurricane flooded an estimated 80% of the city, resulting in a mass exodus of residents. These were the residents who could afford to leave: they were not the predominantly Black residents of poorer neighbourhoods, neighbourhoods that were ineffectually protected due to negligent federal maintenance of flood defences. Both in Flint and New Orleans, Black communities were effectively abandoned by the state designed to protect them.
The case is bleak for indigenous communities also. National Geographic reported that, ‘despite making up less than 5% of the world’s population, indigenous people protect 80% of global biodiversity’. These people are on the front lines against unsustainable resource extraction, and many communities are under threat. Jair Bolsanaro, the President of Brazil, is still actively stripping indigenous Amazonians of their guardianship rights, whilst also weakening the environmental legislation that protects the Amazon Rainforest. He came under international criticism for his actions in 2019, when it became apparent that the ten month long Amazonian wildfire had been caused by slash and burn deforestation, ripping into indigenous land in order to make way for commercial logging and farming. This colonial resource extraction is textbook environmental injustice, but it’s not just happening in Brazil: commercial cotton farmers on the Darling River in south-eastern Australia have been accused of stockpiling water upstream, as indigenous communities suffer through persistent droughts in the valleys below. These situations are only going to worsen as global temperatures rise.
It’s clear that our current systems of governance and economic growth place profit and privilege over the importance of Black and Brown human lives. It’s clear that the burdens of pollution and climate change are unequally distributed. If we want to achieve environmental reform on a global scale, creating an equitable, sustainable future for all, we must also tackle environmental injustice, and the systemic racism that allows it to continue.