By Jennifer Ries
Former intern with the Policy Action Team in fall of 2020, now a first year at Columbia University

Racial and socioeconomic equity are central to climate justice. It’s impossible for the United States to examine its contributions to climate change, and their impact, without also examining inequities built into the foundation of the U.S., both in terms of the systematically racist and classist society at home and a legacy of colonialism and U.S. and European imperialism abroad. The same systems of inequity that facilitate U.S. imperialism and exploitation of developing countries cause the domestic overpolicing of communities of color and low-income communities and uphold both domestic and global environmental racism. It’s only through dismantling these oppressive systems that it becomes possible to work toward environmental justice.

A study by the Black Institute states that “Environmental racism describes the subjection of racially marginalized groups to disproportionate exposure to pollutants from industry, natural resource extraction, toxic waste, poor land management, and sometimes lack of access to clean water. This term also describes the disadvantaged ecological relationships between the industrialized West and developing nations which threaten the health, overall well-being, and safety of these populations,” adding that “Communities of color also have higher exposure rates to air pollution compared to their white, non-Hispanic counterparts.”

Globally, the same nations that have experienced colonial exploitation at the hands of the imperialist U.S. and other colonial powers are those that are feeling the effects of consumerism, pollution, and climate change most keenly.

For example, in the Philippines, a country previously subjected to Spanish colonial rule and U.S. imperialism, waste imported from abroad has made areas of the country unlivable. A 2019 article in The Guardian reported on the situation in Valenzuela City, sometimes referred to as “Plastic City,” calling the area just outside of Manila “a microcosm of some of the problems facing communities in south-east Asia, which have become the dumping grounds for the world’s plastic waste.” The Philippines receives exported waste from countries such as South Korea, Australia, Hong Kong, Canada, and the U.S. Rex Gatchalian, the mayor of Valenzuela City, reported that much of the plastic waste processed in Canumay West plants was exported by other countries. Plastic waste clogs the streets of Canumay West village in Valenzuela City, forcing residents to live amongst the excesses of consumerism. Children play with domestic plastic waste near the plants. Residents of this area breathe in fumes from burning plastic from nearby plastic recycling plants, causing health problems among the local population. One resident described the fumes from burning plastic as “suffocating.”

According to another Guardian study, also published in 2019, every year the U.S. produces 34.5 million tons of plastic waste. While a small proportion of this waste, about 9 percent in 2015, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, was recycled, the vast majority is not recyclable. The U.S. previously exported much of its plastic waste to China and Hong Kong for recycling, but in 2017, China placed strong restrictions on the plastic it would take from the U.S., as an overwhelming amount of U.S. plastic was going into Chinese landfills. Since then, the U.S. has sent much of its plastic waste to developing countries such as Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam, creating similar situations to that in Valenzuela City.

In addition, the first climate migrants, whose homes have become unlivable because of effects of climate change such as rising sea level and temperature, have overwhelmingly lived in countries that contribute the least carbon emissions and pollution.

In October 2017, the United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that there had been about 22.5 million climate migrants each year from weather or disasters related to climate change since 2008. Furthermore, the commissioner reported that “Slow-onset processes, such as rising sea levels, the degradation of freshwater resources, erosion desertification, ocean acidification and glacial retreat threatened to cause even more human misery.”

Even as the majority of greenhouse gas emissions are caused by large corporations, systematically marginalized communities, both domestically and globally, experience the majority of the effects.

A 2018 report by the World Bank Group looked at Central and South America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia, regions accounting for 55 percent of the population of the developing world. The report found that, without intervention, the aforementioned “slow onset” manifestations of climate change could produce over 143 million climate migrants, about 2.8 percent of the total population of the three regions, by 2050.

Domestically, communities of color and low-income communities are forced to live with pollution they didn’t create and experience an outsized portion of the impact of a problem they didn’t cause.

An early study concerning environmental racism was the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice’s 1987 “Toxic Wastes and Race In the United States,” concerning uncontrolled toxic waste sites and commercial hazardous waste sites. The study found that race was the most significant factor in where commercial hazardous waste facilities were located in the United States, with predominantly Black and Latinx communities housing three out of the five largest commercial hazardous waste landfills in the U.S., an estimated 40% of U.S. commercial landfill capacity. The study also concluded that uncontrolled waste facilities were more likely to be located in communities of color, with 60% of Black and Latinx Americans living in communities with one or more toxic waste facilities.

The Black Institute study mentioned above also examined a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) report by the city of New York on the use of the cancer-causing pesticide glyphosate in predominantly Black and Brown communities in New York City. The report stated that out of the 50 total parks and playgrounds in which glyphosate was used in 2018, 42 were located in Harlem, a borough whose population is 62% people of color.

This is not to mention the fact that the 64% of NYC Parks Department employees, the people most likely to be applying the pesticide, are people of color.

Inequity, particularly racial and socioeconomic inequity, is also built into the foundation of policing in the U.S. A survey by Pew Research found that 44% of Black adults reported having been subjected to unwarranted police stops because of their race or ethnicity, compared to only 9% of white adults. In the same survey, 59% of Black men reported experiencing these kinds of encounters.

Policing was built to protect the interests of the dominant ruling class and to serve the economic interests of corporate power held by this class. The police have historically acted, and continue to act, in service of the dominant ruling class. The institution was built to protect white people, even as it abused communities of color, and to privilege wealthy communities over lower-income ones. A study conducted by the People’s Policy Project used census data to observe the role that race and rate of poverty played in the number of police killings occuring in different communities between 2015 and 2020. The study found that, across race, areas in the wealthiest fifth of the general population, with poverty rates below 5.6%, had approximately 1.8 police killings per million, compared to 6.4 per million in those in the least-wealthy fifth, with poverty rates above 23.9%. Combining the factors of race and socioeconomic class, the study found that Black communities in the least-wealthy fifth of the population had a rate of 12.3 killings per million, while white communities in the same category had 7.9 per million, and Latinx communities had 4.7. The study also noted that 36.6% of Black people lived in communities in the least-wealthy fifth of the population, compared to 31.1 % of Latinx people, and only 9.6 % of white people in the same category.

Not only does environmental racism mirror the injustice of policing and police violence in the United States, the two issues intersect to produce human rights violations.

In 2014, the Texas-based company Energy Transfer Partners brought forward plans to construct the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), a 1,168-mile underground pipeline intended to transport crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields through South Dakota and Iowa to Illinois, from which a second pipeline would carry it to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico. The proposal met backlash from various environmental groups for its potential contributions to oil pollution, but the central response to the pipeline came from the population of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, located in North and South Dakota. The pipeline was intended to pass beneath the Missouri River, putting the tribe’s main water source at risk of oil contamination, as well as through a sacred burial ground. Standing Rock Sioux tribal leaders criticized the U.S. government for excluding the tribe from permit negotiations and sued the Army Corps of Engineers for violations of the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Policy Act.

When plans for the pipeline were approved in 2016, members of the tribe and other activists engaged in peaceful protest to block construction of the pipeline. These protests were met with armed members of the National Guard and other law enforcement agencies making what the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) called a “battlefield-like atmosphere,” driving around in armored vehicles and using water cannons to disperse protestors.

The ACLU reported that “Escalated police militarization was used to intimidate and silence water protectors’ free speech and their right to protest a pipeline which passes near sovereign territory.”

In November 2020, the Army Corps of Engineers approved the Canadian energy company Enbridge’s proposal for a pipeline in Northern Minnesota, Enbridge Line 3. The pipeline is set to run through Anishinaabe territory, affecting hundreds of acres of wetlands to transport Canadian tar sands oil to Lake Superior. Since 2013, Indigenous-led organizations have fought to legally block construction of the pipeline.

Anishinaabe communities in northern Minnesota also reported drone surveillance of resistance camps near where construction is set to begin and expressed concern that protests to stop Line 3 could receive a similar police response to the 2016 protests at Standing Rock.

Large corporations using unethical and exploitative practices to maximize their profit – whether in maintaining an imperial presence in a developing country to exploit it economically and gain access to its natural resources, or ignoring the environmental impacts of methods used to extract materials and produce products – are protected by the police. Corporate power is disproportionately held by the dominant ruling class, and large corporations are responsible for the vast majority of pollution and carbon emissions. The police protect the interests of this group.

Ultimately, it comes down to the power structures in place. The same historically marginalized communities that disproportionately suffer the effects of climate change also disproportionately experience overpolicing, not to mention disparities in access to healthcare, housing, education, and gainful employment, all of which enable individuals to live healthy lives. The current system of policing in the U.S. ensures that powerful corporations keep their power and marginalized communities continue to be subjugated. In addition, like climate change, over-policing further marginalizes communities already facing crippling institutional inequities, interfering with individuals’ ability to live healthy, safe lives.

MN350 Action created an online survey on how public money currently going to policing could be used to support and uplift communities, particularly marginalized communities. Through the Empower Voting App project, volunteers asked their networks, “If a portion of the funding currently going toward policing could be diverted, where would you like to see it going, and how would you like to see it being used?” Some answers included: a transition to clean energy, environmental cleanup initiatives, education, stable housing and income, social services, and mental health support. These responses advocate for diverting these funds to initiatives that uplift communities by making them cleaner, safer, and healthier.

If funds currently being used to perpetuate inequity by giving large corporations power at the expense of marginalized groups are reallocated to programs uplifting communities, the imbalance of power in our world becomes slightly smaller. It is crucial to center this work to dismantle systems of racial and socioeconomic class-based oppression in the fight for true environmental justice.

Jennifer Ries was an intern with the Policy Action Team in fall of 2020. She is now a first year at Columbia University.

Selected resources

Climate migrants:

Colonization/imperialism in the Philippines:

Pew Research data:

Study on police killings:

The Black Institute study:

“Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States” study:

United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights panel summary:

US plastic waste exports:

Valenzuela City, Philippines

World Bank study: