Environmental Pollution and Social Justice
How Are They Connected?
By Avery T Phillips
Climate change has been on the forefront of many people’s minds, as recent news broke that the world has less than a decade to get climate change under control. With the way climate change events are currently playing out — with about 100 companies responsible for 71 percent of overall emissions — chances are, it’s going to be difficult to force change on an individual level. However, it’s still worth trying.
In fact, there are many ways in which individuals can enact change in their personal life that could have a ripple effect on the overall health of the planet. However, unless serious change happens on a larger scale almost immediately, the world as we know it could be irreparably damaged, and millions of people could be in danger. As one New York Magazine article put it: “What has been called a genocidal level of warming is already our inevitable future. The question is how much worse than that it will get.”
Global warming is linked with human-caused events, but global warming is also far more dangerous for specific humans, namely those living in poverty or living on shorelines. How are climate change and social justice interconnected? And as a global citizen, what can you do to influence the world and potentially improve the lives of those who are less fortunate across the globe?
Global Warming and Social Justice
Public health, clean water, and corporate responsibility are some of the most important aspects of how climate change and social justice are inherently connected. Yet all three of these problems, although all human made and also affecting humans on an individual level, also go much deeper. As with most things, there is nuance behind every cause and effect, and the interconnectedness of global warming and social justice should be considered with intersectionality in mind.
Intersectionality is defined as the intersection of different socioeconomic classes or social characterizations (race, religion, income class, gender, LGBTQIA identity, disability, and more) on an individual or group level, all of which overlap to create different disadvantages or discriminations. The idea of intersectionality is often tied to social justice, as it helps create a sense of awareness on how different social characteristics may interact within a single person. However, an intersectional lens can also be applied to many other disciplines — including climate change.
For example, some of the people that will be most affected by climate change include those living in developing countries, the poor, those living near shorelines, and those living near toxic waste or unclean water sources. These people may also have other disadvantages — such as a lack of income, being a person of color, or struggling with chronic illnesses or disabilities — that may further hamper how they are able to adapt to climate change due to social policy or lack of accessibility.
Income, Location, and the Spread of Diseases
When it comes to the dangerous future that climate change will bring on, there will be three major concerns: how to help those living in poverty survive and find food and shelter; how to help those living near shorelines, forests fire areas, or in flood zones find safe housing after they’ve lost everything; and how to prevent the spread of dangerous diseases.
It is predicted that by 2040, sea levels may rise, food scarcity will become a global phenomenon, and wildfires, heatwaves, dramatic flooding, and more will plague many different parts of the world. Some areas may even experience droughts that last anywhere from 19 months in the Caribbean to 5 years in the northernmost regions of Africa.
Additionally, epidemiologists predict water-borne, insect-borne, and other contagious diseases may run rampant in developing nations and among those who cannot afford healthcare. Epidemiology is defined as the study of diseases in relation to populations, distribution, and control of or eradication of a disease. Within this study, many scientists are able to connect commonalities in relation to specific conditions, and can even provide the vital research needed for combatting those conditions.
However, with the way the world is changing and the growing wealth inequality around the world, being poor has become increasingly dangerous for many individuals. For many in poverty, they don’t have access to clean water, healthy foods, or proper shelter and sanitation. Additionally, private healthcare is too expensive, and public options are not always available. Many in developed nations may avoid the doctor just to avoid massive medical bills, further worsening their condition in the process.
Lack of access to safe and affordable housing is also a major concern, as many live in areas that are at an increased risk of damage due to changing weather patterns. For example, trailer parks in the “Tornado Alley” part of the midwest are often decimated by large storms, whereas newer (and pricier) homes are created to withstand increased winds and provide shelter for residents below ground. Those living in poverty often don’t have the luxury to afford homeowners insurance, as well, so many may lose everything they have and become displaced, without the hope of financial compensation.
Additionally, many homes in metropolitan areas are infested with mold or are made out of old and dangerous materials — such as lead in water pipes, like in Flint, MI, or asbestos in the paint and ceiling, which can cause serious harm and mesothelioma tumors. As more and more of these areas are at risk of flooding or being damaged in some way by the weather, these dangerous materials can seep into the water source, making access to clean water nearly impossible for those living in poverty in developed nations. Additionally, poor sanitation can further risk the spread of dangerous diseases.
As global warming gets worse, water scarcity will become more common, diseases will become more rampant, and it is very probable that humans living in poverty will face the brunt of this new challenging future.
Environmentally Friendly Choices With Social Justice in Mind
The future is bleak, but what options are there for those that want to help others survive the impending climate change? What can you do on an individual level that not only helps the environment, but also keeps social justice in mind?
One thing you can do is work to conserve drinkable water and pressure your local government to increase measures to ensure the future of your area has access to drinkable water. In Cape Town, South Africa, residents were once faced with a “Day Zero,” where the entire town of nearly half a million people would have to face water rations. Luckily,through proactive citizen action, they were able to completely reverse their water scarcity and cut back on nearly half of their overall water usage. Every city could learn from Cape Town’s example — especially as water scarcity and long draughts are looming on the horizon.
Another thing you can do is to work within your local area to ensure those living near you have financial support. Support local markets and creators, and cut back on unnecessary consumerism. Focus instead on helping others meet their most basic needs by supplying people with donated clothes, food, or supplies.
Try being sustainable in your own life or business with the circle economy model: instead of using and throwing away, try finding a way to repurpose what you have into something new and reusable. Recycle, and invest in renewable energy. Avoid burning fossil fuels by eliminating coal or gas from your home, driving less, using public transportation, or avoiding flying. Additionally, consider making your home more eco-friendly by composting, installing solar panels (if you can afford it), avoiding harsh chemicals when cleaning, limiting your water use, and even switching from gas to electric heating options.
Another option that is more globally focused is to support nonprofits that work within the areas most affected by climate change and are respectful and knowledgeable of the local cultures and customs. Overall, nonprofit and social enterprises are extremely valuable to developing countries — especially those that work alongside the local community and are aware of their unique needs. As Norwich University explains:
“Developing countries can benefit from working with nonprofits and social enterprises in two contexts: either in the event of humanitarian crises, or during non-emergency situations. During disasters, nonprofit organizations and social enterprises can play a vital role in reaching remote populations, using their specialized knowledge and networks of staff and volunteers to provide badly-needed relief and aid such as medicine, food and other supplies. Understanding local communities and their needs allows nonprofits to help governments and other large international organizations better distribute essential services.
“In addition to providing aid in the event of a disaster, nonprofit organizations and social enterprises are especially adept at finding solutions to the manifold problems facing communities; these include disease, famine, climate change and lack of clean water, among others. In collaboration with local communities, nonprofits and social enterprises can implement short- and long-term strategies for handling these challenges.”
Finally, you can always turn your passion for sustainability into your career. Anything from working in a greener office to becoming an international volunteer or social worker can ultimately help the world as we transition into a more tumultuous climate future.