The overwhelming whiteness of US environmentalism is hobbling the fight against climate change

Environmental racism is real.
Environmental racism is real.
Image: AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States has many environmentalists on edge. The Republican president-elect has nominated the CEO of ExxonMobil as secretary of state, and his pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, is a noted climate-change denier with close ties to the fossil-fuel industry.

If the Trump administration fails to take climate change seriously, the results could be disastrous for wide swaths of the national and international population. But communities of color, who are disproportionately susceptible to effects of climate change including heat waves, extreme weather, and pollution, are especially at risk. As Peggy Shepard, the executive director of WE ACT, an organization dedicated to climate health for communities of color, said after Pruitt’s nomination: “From Standing Rock to Flint to Harlem, make no mistake that environmental racism is real.”

Given the environmental threats posed by a Trump administration, it’s more crucial than ever that Americans work together to fight climate change. And in order to achieve broad, collaborative action, the mainstream environmental movement will need to take a hard look at how its overwhelming whiteness has thus far hobbled its efforts.

Despite the immediate threat of climate change to communities of color, cultural stereotypes maintain that Hispanic people, African Americans, and other people of color are less concerned than whites about environmental issues. But in reality, Hispanics and African Americans are some of the most ardent supporters of progressive climate and energy policies. They are also more likely than whites to voice support for these policies, even when it means personally incurring greater costs. Studies have also found that Hispanics are significantly more likely than whites to say the Earth is warming because of human activities, and that the US should do whatever it takes to protect the environment. A recent New York Times poll also found that Hispanics, to a greater degree than whites, view climate change as a legitimate concern and support robust mitigation policies.

Clearly, people of color are invested in working to address climate change and other environmental issues. And yet the mainstream environmentalist movement has failed them, largely because it has been designed by and for a white, upper-middle-class demographic. (Close your eyes and picture an environmentalist, and you’re likely to summon up a white guy in a Patagonia jacket, standing proudly next to his Prius with camping equipment loaded in the back.) And so it should come as no surprise that racial minorities, who are underrepresented in mainstream environmental organizations, are less likely to identify as “environmentalists” or to align themselves with environmental advocacy groups.

Another obstacle is that climate change is a highly politicized issue, with the conservative right tending to voice adamant opposition to new and existing environmental measures. But research generally suggests that public opinion about climate change is less rooted in political orientation for US racial minorities than it is for whites. In other words, people of color who identify as moderate or conservative may still care about addressing climate change—but environmentalists are failing to reach them.

Immediate and significant actions must be taken to reach these communities of color who reflect the new socio-political landscape of the United States. Given that people of color are largely supportive of ameliorative actions to address climate change, and that they are potentially less swayed by political ideologies regarding climate change, climate messages should prioritize people of color as essential allies in the climate-change mitigation movement.

California is taking the lead. Last week, Governor Jerry Brown announced that California would work directly with other states and nations to take action in the fight against climate change. This is particularly promising for communities of color given that more than 45% of the state’s 40 million residents are Hispanic or African American. And as a leading producer of our nation’s farm products, many of the state’s 15 million Hispanic residents (more so than any other demographic) work in agriculture—an occupation in which people are highly exposed to the consequences of climate change, such as air pollution and extreme heat.

We must also look beyond the mainstream environmental organizations to the minority-focused organizations and activists emerging as leaders in the environmental movement. GreenLatinos, a national non-profit organization addressing environmental issues for the Latino community, has been an outspoken advocate in the wake of Standing Rock and the Trump election. Celebrities of color, including Pharrell Williams and Edward James Olmos, are also helping to create a voice for communities of color regarding climate change.

Black churches across the country are stepping up as leaders in advocating for the environment. And Pope Francis himself, the first Latin-American pope, has emerged as a strong voice in favor of caring for the climate. Research findings have shown that opinion leaders such as these clergy can be valuable allies in promoting awareness and mobilization action regarding climate change.

The environmental movement as a whole must also adopt strategies that explicitly seek to protect the interests of vulnerable communities. One such strategy is embedded environmentalism, which compensates people who will be most affected by environmental regulations. As a recent article in The Conversation explains, “Hillary Clinton’s Appalachia plan reflected embedded environmentalism because it offered a $30 billion program to aid coal-producing communities that would be harmed by Obama’s Clean Power Plan.”

Lastly, it is not just the environmental movement itself that needs to change. The way we narrate it must also evolve to be more inclusive. The creative industry can respond to environmental dangers ushered in under the Trump era by producing stories of what people and companies can do to fight climate change—featuring the communities of color who are already leading the way.