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The intersection of the climate crisis and social justice

Climate change acts as an intensifying layer on top of the long history of systemic racism that has led to existing social, health, and economic inequities.

A mural painting created by Julia "Julz" Roth and Cedric "Vise1" Douglas, in the Boston Shipyard. Murals have begun to pop up in the Boston Harbor Shipyard & Marina and East Boston as artists create six large-scale murals; each centers around environmental education and climate change. The initiative, known as "Sea Walls: Artists for Oceans," will install up to 15 public murals throughout East Boston.Erin Clark / Globe Staff

The research is clear: People of color, especially Black, Latino, and indigenous people, and low-income families are hit harder by climate change and recover more slowly from climate disasters than the general population.

What underlies the research is the injustice of a Black mother taking her son to the ER for asthma attacks more frequently than a similarly situated white mother. It’s having an inadequate response to thousands of lives lost and the devastation in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria. It is homeowners of color whose houses were destroyed by the latest storm surge in the Gulf Coast who don’t have access to insurance and a family safety net while white communities rebuild. It is a Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribal member, already on the edge of economic disaster because of historic discrimination, whose house is destroyed by rising sea levels on Isle de Jean Charles in the bayous of Louisiana.


White communities and families are also hurt by climate change — and their pain is real and deep and traumatizing. But if you are a person of color, you are more likely, because of structural racism, to be harmed physically, to lose property, and to be dislocated economically when climate change hits.

Climate change acts as an intensifying layer on top of the long history of systemic racism that has led to existing social, health, and economic inequities. One powerful example clarifies this: In Boston, as exposed by the Federal Reserve Bank, redlining and educational and job discrimination have resulted in a median net worth of $8 for nonimmigrant Black households in Greater Boston, while the median white household has a net worth of $247,500. When a storm surge hits or flooding from torrential rains inundates homes in Boston, which families will have an easier time rebuilding? The thinking and behavior that lead to these inhumane experiences and realities of people of color are indicators of larger societal problems that are harmful to every American.


With the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May, and the subsequent racial reckoning that is elevating conversations of racism, the legal system, and history in the public square, there is a long-overdue embrace of the notion that both climate change and racial justice are intimately intertwined.

We do have a choice. President Trump has not only rejected what science has learned about climate change, but he has also expressly rejected the fact that racism intersects with other societal challenges like climate change. Democratic presidential nominee Biden, on the other hand, has not only put on the table the most aggressive climate plan of any major party’s candidate ever, but has also expressly prioritized righting past environmental wrongs as a central tenet of that plan.

In August, during Black Lives Matter protests around the country, Biden proposed a far-reaching climate plan, built on the foundation of investing $2 trillion over four years to drive the country into the clean-energy future. And significant parts of the plan are designed exactly to address past environmental injustices, seize clean-energy economic opportunities in disadvantaged communities, and work toward climate justice.

Four major pieces of the Biden-Harris plan weave together climate and justice.

The first relies on reinstating the centrality of science in climate and environmental decision-making, with a greater emphasis on understanding the causes and solutions of disproportionate climate impacts on Black and indigenous communities and on communities of color.


The second is intentional and core integration of environmental justice perspectives into climate policy and planning. Historically, environmental justice (or these) issues have been afterthoughts or add-ons in climate planning. The Biden-Harris plan rejects this disjointed approach in favor of a more integrative one commensurate with the dynamic of climate and justice issues.

The third piece includes several proposals to give greater muscle to the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Justice for bringing cases against polluters whose actions have overburdened communities of color and front-line communities.

The fourth is intentional investment — a promised 40 percent of infrastructure funds — that targets clean energy deployment and economic development in communities of color. While Biden’s “Build Back Better” program envisions major infrastructure climate investments across the board in transportation, housing, energy, and water, a focus of the program is on the deployment of clean energy, public transit, resilience, and job creation in front-line communities.

The Biden plan is only a plan at this point, but it is one of the most high-level strategic blueprints that acknowledges the intersection of climate and justice. Through continued engagement with communities, especially those who are disproportionately burdened by climate change and racial injustices, this plan can pave a path to both confront and address past injustices while moving the United States to a more clean and just future.

S. Atyia Martin is CEO and founder of All Aces Inc., a member of Northeastern University’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs Advisory Committee, a distinguished senior fellow at Northeastern University’s Global Resilience Institute, and former chief resilience officer for the City of Boston. David W. Cash is dean of the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston and a former commissioner in the Department of Public Utilities and Department of Environmental Protection in Massachusetts.