Environmental Justice

Matt Brown, News Editor

As we sit through what seems to be an endless presidential election cycle, one of the biggest issues being discussed on the Democratic side is climate policy. And while it seems that every candidate has a big plan for combating climate change, it really means nothing unless there’s an environmental justice component.

Environmental justice is a movement pushing lawmakers globally to consider who’s really at stake when the effects of a changing climate begin to hit us, and when you see climate change through that lens, the view is astounding. In order to gain that perspective, you need to look closely into the institutional practices of our governing bodies. One of the easiest ways to visualize this concept is the history of waste dumping.

In a Texas Southern University study in 1978-79, data showed that between 1930 and 1978, 82 percent of all waste in Houston was dumped in areas surrounded by black neighborhoods, when only 25 percent of the population was black. Dr. Robert Bullard, one of the leading researchers, stated, “This was not random or isolated; it was targeted and widespread across the southern states and the nation.”

Even Oregon’s legislature has come up short in its ability to protect low-income communities from dangerously ignorant practices. In the 2019 legislative session, two bills that would have banned the highly toxic and dangerous pesticide chlorpyrifos from agricultural use failed. The pesticide is already banned in Hawaii, California, and for household uses in Oregon.

The argument to be made here is that household bans were easy to pass because those that can afford to shop for pesticides can advocate for protection from the negative effects, while those people farming the crops, who are largely low-income workers, cannot. In the end, we see agricultural workers continuously exposed to a dangerous toxin, while upper-class, usually-white parents whose kids may get sick after eating an unwashed apple can push, nudge and rally to get the stuff banned.

Climate change is already climate reality for low-income people and communities of color. That being said, it is important to understand that environmental justice and climate justice are not the same thing. Those running for office now have to take into consideration those that have been historically afflicted by failed protections and systemic racism, and only then will any plan to combat climate change actually improve the lives of people right now.