READ: What It Means That the Environmental Justice Movement is Overwhelmingly White

By Ayana Byrd Mar 11, 2019

As presidential hopefuls and Democrat politicians continue to embrace—or distance themselves—from the subject of climate change and the Green New Deal, a new article in The Guardian highlights a major dilemma facing the entire environmental justice movement: the lack of proportional racial representation.

Written by Emily Holden, “A Lot at Stake: Indigenous and Minorities Sidelined on Climate Change Fight” examines the glaring diversity problem in an area that disproportionately affects people of color. Reports Holden:


Indigenous people and communities of color have historically seen the worst environmental degradation and biggest health risks from pollution, yet campaigns to protect the environment and fight climate change have often sidelined them.

The piece, which was published yesterday (March 10), opens with a description of Bernadette Demientieff, a member of the Indigenous Gwich’in nation:


She makes frequent trips to the U.S. capital to fight oil drilling in what she considers sacred caribou calving grounds in the Arctic. But Demientieff is an outsider in the nation’s capital, where her concerns have fallen on deaf ears with the Trump administration. She’s also a bit of an outsider to the national environmental movement, too.


“I’m not an activist. I’m not an environmentalist. I don’t like to be branded because I care about our land and our animals,” she said. She sees herself as a human rights advocate.

There is an obvious connection, asserts the article, between human rights work and environmental justice:


Research repeatedly shows communities of color are more likely to be subjected to pollution. The parts of the country with dangerous, cancer-related air pollution have lower percentages of White residents, according to an analysis by the Intercept.


At the same time, most environment and climate change funding goes to groups with White leaders. Research has shown 95 percent of the $60 billion in annual foundation funding for all causes goes to organizations led by White people and 70 to 80 percent goes to those led by men, [philanthropy fund] Solutions Project notes.

Policy analyst Julian Brave NoiseCat, who is a member of the Canim Lake Band Tsq’escen, told The Guardian, “[The environmental movement was] premised upon empire and colonization and racial exclusion” and cites two of its founding fathers, Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir, as having “had essentially racist views.”

“More recently the sort of core constituencies of the environmental movement have primarily been White, liberal, middle-class suburbanites,” he added.

The article notes positive changes in the movement and related industries, including an increase in the number of POC-owned solar businesses and a growing recognition that there must be a push for diversity:


Mustafa Santiago Ali, who coordinated environmental justice efforts under the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), said “there’s no way to sugarcoat” the scope of the problem.


“I don’t know how you go backwards, especially in the time that we’re living in when you definitely need folks coming together,” Ali said.

Read the entire article here.