Climate change is such an overwhelming problem that many people understandably want to keep it separate from other issues. After all, the task seems daunting enough already. To avoid catastrophic climate disruption, global emissions of greenhouse gases must be slashed by 45 percent by 2030, requiring unprecedented transformations in energy, agriculture and other key economic sectors, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declared last October. But treating the climate crisis as a stand-alone problem is a mistake. Issues of justice—economic justice, racial justice, gender justice, and intergenerational justice—lie at the heart of this crisis, and these injustices must be addressed if the fight for a livable future is to succeed. We can’t simply slap solar panels everywhere and call it a day. We have to dismantle the systems of oppression that gave rise to and perpetuate the climate crisis, including colonialism, racism, and patriarchy.
Many people trace the origins of today’s climate crisis to the Industrial Revolution, when humans first began to burn large amounts of coal, but the crisis’s true roots extend further back to the onset of colonialism. When European colonizers ventured to Africa, Asia, North and South America, they invariably plundered the local natural resources, damaged habitats, hunted species to extinction, and often forced human inhabitants into slavery. Undergirding European colonialism was the assumption that everything on the earth was meant to be extracted, bought and sold—and to make an elite minority very rich. In the eyes of the colonizers, the “new” lands they encountered had no owners—no one had purchased them with a recognizable currency or could prove ownership with property records—so it was free pickings. Along with this attitude came the idea that nothing—not air, not water, not trees, not animals—was sacred or priceless.
Colonialism’s mindset of heedless extraction, greed and human exploitation not only planted the seeds of today’s climate crisis, it remains visible in the crisis’s central injustice: although the poor are responsible for only a tiny share of humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions, they generally suffer first and worst from the heat waves, droughts, storms, rising seas and other effects of those emissions. Most countries in Asia, Africa and South America that endured centuries of colonization remain relatively poor today, and even countries like India and China whose prosperity is increasing emit much less per capita than do the rich countries in North America and Europe. Extreme weather and other climate impacts strike all over the world, but the rich are better positioned to withstand those impacts. The rich have the money to build sea walls, for example, and to operate satellites that warn about an impending hurricane so coastal dwellers can retreat to safety. And when disaster strikes, non-white or non-affluent communities are often shortchanged during relief efforts. After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, black homeowners received $8,000 less per family in government resettlement aid than did white homeowners . Which helps explain why, even eight years after the storm, roughly 80 percent of the mostly black residents of the city’s Lower 9th Ward had not returned.
That brings us to the next system of oppression driving today’s climate crisis—racism. Study after study has shown that people of color and those living in poverty are exposed to higher levels of environmental pollution and suffer commensurately greater health problems. More than half of the residents within two miles of toxic waste facilities in the United States are people of color, according to a study by the Natural Resources Defense Council. People of color are nearly twice as likely as whites to live close to an industrial facility, a report by the Center for Effective Government found. People who lived close to industrial facilities and waste sites in the Bronx borough of New York City were 66 percent more likely to be hospitalized for asthma, according to the CDC.
Why are the vast majority of fossil fuel production sites located in low income or immigrant or communities of color? Because these people have long been victimized by racism, and their perceived powerlessness makes them easy targets for the corporations that operate those facilities and the governments that permit them. By contrast, wealthy white citizens tend to have the money and power to keep such projects out of their neighborhoods. Take the Dakota Access Pipeline, a project designed to transport up to half a million barrels of crude oil daily from North Dakota to Illinois. As ABC News reported , that pipeline was originally set to be built through a majority white community, Bismark, North Dakota, but when that community rejected it, the pipeline was rerouted through indigenous land. Jesse Jackson, who joined the protests against the rerouting, called it “the ripest case of environmental racism I’ve seen in a long time.”
On top of colonialism and racism, the third system of oppression shaping the climate crisis is patriarchy. Simply put, women are more affected by climate disruption than men are. The UN’s “Gateway on Gender Equality and Empowerment” project has documented that 80% of the people displaced by climate disasters are female . Women’s roles as primary caregivers and providers of food and fuel make us more vulnerable when flooding and drought occur. In central Africa, where up to 90 percent of Lake Chad has disappeared, nomadic indigenous women are particularly at risk. As the lake’s shoreline recedes, women have to walk much further to collect water. With dry seasons becoming longer, women are forced to work harder to feed and care for their families. In addition, women worldwide are more likely to be living in poverty , so it’s more difficult for them to recover after climate-related and other disasters.
This is how systems of oppression intertwine with the climate crisis. People of color, women, poor people, disabled people, queer people, homeless people—pretty much everyone who is already vulnerable is disproportionately at risk from climate disruption.
Which is why the climate crisis demands bigger solutions than we initially thought. We need to see the climate crisis not as a stand-alone issue floating separately from everything else, but as the grand culmination of societal injustices that have been building up for centuries. We must speak truth to power, call out these systems of oppression, and put social justice at the center of our fight for a livable future. We must pressure elected leaders, corporations, the news media and others in power not only to abandon fossil fuels and other climate-destructive activities but also to address the systems of oppression that gave rise to the climate crisis in the first place.
You can take action by joining Zero Hour, a youth-led climate action group that I co-founded. Zero Hour is hosting a summit July 12 to 14 in Miami where activists will discuss how these systems of oppression intersect with the climate crisis and what we can do about it. This Is Zero Hour: The Youth Climate Summit is open to everyone, but it will highlight the voices of youth who are at the receiving end of these systems and fighting back.
Join us! Because the only way to overcome a crisis this big is with a climate action revolution.
Jamie Margolin, 17, is a Colombian American student, author, activist, and a founder of the youth climate action organization Zero Hour