In-Depth: The Intersection of Systemic Racism and The Climate Emergency

How climate change connects to racial injustice and contributes to economic inequality, physical and mental illness, and systemic racism.

By Uma Ribeiro and Sarah Meklir

Editor-in-Chief and Managing Editor

Image Source: yale.edu

Who does climate change affect the most?

People of color, specifically Black, Latinx, and Native populations, are most affected by the dangers of climate change. The origins of this can be traced back to the horrors of slavery and colonialism. The lasting effects of slavery and the removal and destruction of land from indigenous peoples led to a disruption of ecological and economic systems, and inaugurated a pattern of exploitation whose effects can still be felt today.  

Systemic racism continues to result in economic inequality which adds to the terrible and dangerous effects of climate change. Take, for instance, neighborhoods in East Baltimore City which are concrete-heavy and highly made up of Black populations, little shade exists and these neighborhoods and their residents feel the terror of climate change the most. 

As climate change worsens every day, so do the conditions in these neighborhoods, where there is insufficient access to healthcare, an absence of trees, and an abundance of row houses in which temperatures can get up to eight degrees hotter inside than outside temperatures. As reported by the Howard Center For Investigative Journalism in Code Red,  “People who live in the hottest parts of the city are more likely to be poor, to live shorter lives, and to experience higher rates of violent crime and unemployment.”

The most common health issues found within Black and Latinx populations are heart disease, asthma and respiratory illness, kidney disease, and diabetes. Extreme heat especially affects people with chronic health conditions in low-income areas, this report also finds. 

The heat makes it harder for the human body to naturally regulate temperature. High temperatures and humidity rates exacerbate these illnesses. Pollutants are exacerbated by heat, and both pollutants and heat are dangerous to those with chronic illnesses. As the body works to cool itself down, the heart pumps at a faster rate which further injures the heart for those with heart disease. Dehydration in times of extreme heat puts a strain on the kidney and can present a serious risk, especially to young children, the elderly, and those who are pregnant. 

Black children are the population most affected by asthma, which exacerbates the lungs and therefore leaves them more susceptible to COVID-19. Increasing temperature makes it more dangerous and difficult for people with asthma, especially those in neighborhoods where a lack of air conditioning is common.

Latinx children are also affected by asthma at a disproportionate rate. Hispanic children are 70% more likely to be hospitalized and twice as likely to die from the respiratory condition than their non-hispanic counterparts. It is all too common for Latinx peoples to live in dangerously polluted areas, and more often than not, where they live plays a role in how their health is affected by environmental factors. 

As reported by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), almost half of the country’s 56 million Latinos live in areas with “ground-level ozone pollution” putting them at risk for “premature death, lung cancer, asthma attacks” among many other illnesses. This same 2015 report found that almost 50% of crop and livestock production workers and almost 30% of construction workers in the United States were Latinos, at risk of exposure to extreme heat for hours at a time. 

This report states that farm and construction workers were among the groups with the most job-related deaths, with hispanics three times more likely to die of heat-related deaths than non-hispanics. Undocumented Latinx immigrants are affected by climate emergencies even further adversely compared to those with documentation, as they do not have access to aid. Many of those most affected by climate change and economic inequality (due to systemic racism) are also susceptible to diabetes. These risk factors also make residents of these communities more susceptible to the threats of the pandemic.

The effects of climate change on indigenous populations is seen on a global scale. Climate change threatens Native peoples’ economic, social, spiritual, and cultural livelihood in addition to physical safety. Rising sea levels have jeopardized food supply for many indigenous populations, while heat has the same impact on indigenous peoples as it does on Black and Latinx populations and it is damaging to their physical and mental state. 

Indigenous livelihood has been affected by climate emergencies and loss of land through encroachment upon their territory, leading to food insecurity which can make indigenous people more susceptible to illness such as diabetes or heart disease. Global warming and government interference and maltreatment of native lands has caused deforestation on larger scales in South America’s Amazon rainforest. 

That, combined with the global rise in temperature, resulted in an unprecedented scale of wildfires, not only in the rainforests, but also the Pantanal wetlands. Recent hurricanes in Central America, whose severity have been attributed to global warming, affected areas that are inhabited mostly by indigenous and Afro-Latinx populations.

The environmental crisis, although most visible in the tropical areas of the global south, has immediate local consequences in “developed countries,” due to the aforementioned pattern of exploitation. Limited access to healthcare and humane living conditions causes people of color in the cities to be more vulnerable.

With few methods of coping with the extremes of climate change—a result of the maltreated environment and global warming—mental illness rates are on the rise in communities that are most hard hit by the effects of climate change. Without access to healthcare and resources, people become trapped in a cycle of poverty. 

Global warming, and the unjust system that makes people of color its main victims, are a consequence of centuries-long colonialism. In the process of stealing land from and displacing indigenous peoples and subjecting Black people to slavery, generational trauma has been passed down. These populations continue to face economic and racial injustice to a disproportionate extent. The appropriation of land by colonialists did not only affect the environment, but the people who were protecting that environment. 

Resources: Where to get involved and learn more about these issues 

Local youth activism organizations to check out:

  • Hoco For Justice is a multicultural youth-led organization dedicated to the liberation and success of Black and Brown lives on the local and national level. They aim to dismantle white supremacy and the oppressive systems that result from it. You can check out their website here.
  • BioMonkey is a nonprofit organization led by youth focused on promoting equity in education and nurturing leadership and activism among young adults. You can check out their website here.
  • Fridays For Future Digital hosts digital online climate strikes every week. Check them out here.
  • Youtheoria is a youth organization of online workshops and discussions with young people from all over the world. The aim of this organization is to discover different perspectives, foster community, and challenge assumptions. Check them out here.
  • To learn more about Baltimore’s climate divide, used for this article, click here. To learn more about how climate change is connected to systemic racism, click here and here.

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