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Climate summit should focus on environmental justice

Monday, leaders from across the globe will gather in Paris to discuss the world's most critical environmental issues. When they do, environmental justice should be on the agenda.

The EPA defines environmental justice as "the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies." It is important that our leaders discuss how certain environmental issues disproportionately affect communities of color. This is especially true in cities like Baltimore, where water insecurity, poor air quality and unsafe housing are prevalent and hurting black communities.

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The United States has a long legacy of environmental racism and injustice resulting from housing segregation and discriminatory mortgage lending. A study published by the University of Minnesota revealed that people of color are exposed to more pollutants than whites, even in the cleanest cities and most rural areas. One particularly high-risk environmental toxin is lead. A recent analysis of lead poisoning data for U.S cities revealed a correlation between elevated lead poisoning rates and cities with higher percentages of black residents.

The data are telling in cities like Baltimore, where 63.1 percent of the population is black. Baltimore currently has three times the national rate of lead poisoning among children. The effects of lead exposure can be severe, leading many times to behavioral problems such as aggressive tendencies, lack of impulse control and ADHD, among other learning disabilities. Exposure to high doses, while uncommon, can even lead to death. Lead poisoning is highly preventable; however, Baltimore's neglect of its deteriorating housing stock makes it difficult to address the issue.

While rates of poisoning have steadily declined overall, black families are still suffering the burden of this legacy. A 2006 study showed that the percentage of white families who lived in homes with dangerous levels of lead had decreased since 1999, while the percentage of black families had actually increased.

Lead poisoning is but one of numerous environment-related problems affecting families of color. Most recently, Baltimore residents faced water shut-offs for unpaid bills. This policy directly punishes people living in poverty and can lead to detrimental effects in low-income residents' health. Water shut offs are also caused by Baltimore's dilapidated housing, even in cases where water bills are paid. Just recently, residents of Reservoir Hill Lakeview Towers went days without running water and heat due to a broken water pump in the public housing complex. Residents complained about their lack of ability to flush toilets or take showers, and when protesting, claimed that they were being treated as second-class citizens.

There are many reasons why these environmental disparities exist — many of them economic. Lower income residents cannot afford safe housing, air filters, purifiers, bottled water or to move out of the area. Environmental injustice plays an enormous role in the lives of some people, but it is seldom recognized by those who do not experience it first-hand. Unfortunately, this means it's often excluded from environmental talks like the Paris conference. Recognizing the highly disproportionate rate at which black families are affected by environmental hazards, policy intended to alleviate environmental hazards should be tailored specifically to communities of color. Policymakers, government officials and stakeholders must be persuaded to recognize this.

These issues cannot be resolved through blanket policymaking, as it does not address the unequal nature of these environmental and public health issues. Thus, solutions must help those who are the most effected. As key participants in the climate change debate gather in Paris, they should consider how the issues they discuss affect people of color and whether the solutions they have proposed have done enough to balance out the injustices that have plagued the United States, and the world, for so long.

Andrea Sosa (maria.sosa@mail.goucher.edu) is a senior at Goucher College and former chapter head of the Roosevelt Network at Goucher.

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