The Inequitable Impact of Climate Change

Updated: Aug 26, 2020

The face of the environmental movement is changing. No longer portrayed by the hippies of the 60s or trendy zero-wasters, climate activists are giving the movement a much-needed facelift. While continuing to say no to plastic straws and sort our recycling, greater focus is being placed on the intersectionality of the climate crisis. Once described as a great equalizer, climate change has proven to be anything but that. The impacts of climate change affect all of us, but disproportionately marginalized communities.1 The inequitable suffering felt by these populations is not by chance – but rather by design. In order to truly tackle the climate crisis, and its accompanying impact on human health, we must acknowledge the systems of oppression that are designed to benefit some people while harming others. Understanding the racialization of climate change requires peeling back what we know about the social determinants of health even further and examining the root causes of these health disparities.

The inequitable impact of climate change is largely felt in the developing world, despite developed countries being responsible for the majority of climate altering activities.1 While the devastating effects of environmental change have been felt globally, low- and middle-income countries, that often lack the necessary infrastructure to protect themselves from natural disasters, are often left to deal with the worst of climate change’s destructive effects.2 The amount of weather-related natural disasters worldwide has more than tripled since the 1960s. These disasters result in over 60,000 deaths every year, the majority of which occur in developing countries.3

But this is not solely an issue of the Global South dealing with the destructive habits the Global North. Even within developed countries, the health disparities between racial and ethnic groups are vast. Environmental racism is pervasive, highlighting the inequitable distribution of environmental burdens between racial and ethnic groups. In the United States, people of colour live with 40% more air pollution than Caucasian people.4 This contributes to the fact that these populations are also at higher risk of contracting and dying of COVID-19.5 Marginalized communities are more likely to be exposed to toxic waste, landfills, and highways – all of which have serious negative health effects.6 Pausing to think about examples, such as the Flint Water Crisis, helps to further drive this point, as it is likely that the issue would have be solved much quicker, or maybe never happened in the first place, were Flint not home to predominately people of colour.

These statistics are staggering and important. However, these studies were all conducted in the United States, as there is currently a lack of race-based data to shed light on the environmental racism that exists in Canada. While the Canadian government has announced plans to collect race-based data related to COVID-19, this type of data collection needs to be happening continuously and for all facets of health. British Columbia's Human Rights Commissioner, Kasari Govender, highlighted this need by saying, "colour-blind approaches to health only serve to worsen health outcomes for black, Indigenous and racialized people because we can't address what we can't see".7

We need to clearly articulate to policy makers and political leaders that climate change is not just an environmental issue. All policies need to be rooted in the principles of planetary health and acknowledge the health disparities that are the product of environmental racism. To appreciate and work on these issues, we need to collaborate across disciplines and across racial groups. Until we bring the diverse voices of environmentalists – and more importantly, of the people who are most affected by climate change – to the table, we will only be adding fuel to the fire.

The Planetary Health Alliance states that, “we have mortgaged the health of future generations to realise economic and development gains in the present”.3 I would argue that we have mortgaged more than solely the health of future generations, but also the health of current generations living in marginalized communities.

The diverse impacts of global climate change call on an interdisciplinary approach to climate action. The current siloed approach, which rests the massive burden of climate action to environmentalists, is short-sighted and dangerous. Through acknowledging the importance of planetary health and environmental racism in public health, climate action can be harnessed as an efficient, upstream response to mitigating the global burden of disease and combating a major contributor of systemic racism.

1. Myers, S. Planetary health: protecting human health on a rapidly changing planet [Internet]. 2017. The Lancet Global Health. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/ S0140-6736(17)32846-5

2. Willow, F. Intersectionality Is Important For Environmental Activism Too [Internet] 2018, Feb 09. Available From: https://ethicalunicorn.com/2018/02/09/intersectionality -is-important-for-environmental-activism-too/

3. Planetary Health Alliance. Intro to Planetary Health [Internet] n.d. Available from:

https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1s8DL0m9gYV01RtpXfEAnRPNvjH-50MLDocpQs_faKgY/edit#slide=id.p6

4. Finley, T. People Of Color Are More Likely To Be Exposed To Pollution Than White People [Internet] 2017 Nov 20. Available from: https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/people-of-color-higher-pollution-exposure_n_5a131756e4b0c335e9964a2c?ri18n=true

5. Gross, C., Essien, U., Pasha, S., Gross, R., Wang, S. & Nunez-Smith, M. Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Population Level Covid-19 Mortality [Internet]. 2020 May 11.Available from: https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.05.07.20094250v1

6. Gochfeld, M., & Burger, J. Disproportionate exposures in environmental justice and other populations: the importance of outliers [Internet]. 2011. American journal of public health, 101 Suppl 1(Suppl 1), S53–S63. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2011.300121

7. Zimonjic, P. Trudeau, Ontario health minister say they're looking at collecting race-based pandemic data [Internet]. 2020, Jun 05. Available from: https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/trudeau-elliott-covid-19-race-based-data-1.5600824


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