Intersectional environmentalism: The fight for climate justice
The Earth’s climate is changing, that much is unarguable. What is often missed in the climate debate however, is that the impact of that change is not felt evenly. In fact, the harsh reality is that those least able to cope with it are those most exposed to the impacts of a changing climate. Environmental justice is about seeing that we all share the climate burden and protect those most in need of protection.
It would be hard to recall a worse summer than the summer of 2019–20: whole swathes of the country choked in noxious smoke, a tourism season turned desolate and image after of image of fires ripping through land, homes and wildlife with ruthless efficiency.
While city dwellers cancelled summer road trips and piled outside to the sound of tripping office fire alarms, while they ushered their children indoors to escape the hazardous air quality, rural communities on the front line of the fires lost everything: their homes and spaces, their wildlife, their livelihoods, their safety and peace of mind. The fires arrived after unprecedented back-to-back droughts, which themselves had plagued rural towns and villages for years, resulting in crop failures, ravaging ecosystems, laying waste to farms and cutting water supplies completely.
What became undeniably clear to anyone who saw the piles of ash that were once homes was this: it is already-vulnerable communities who feel the brunt of climate-based disasters. Rural populations and Indigenous communities are much more exposed to the ramifications of climate change such as increasing droughts and heatwaves driven by a warming planet, and disproportionately affected by environmental disasters like the past bushfire crisis. In other words, those who did the least to cause climate change are, literally, the first in the line of fire.
Those most severely affected by climate-based problems are often those with the fewest resources to respond.
This overburdening is plain to see. Those most severely affected by climate-based problems are often those with the fewest resources to respond. Fracking wells, for example, are more likely to be located in poor rural communities, which feel the strain of the associated pollution. Rising temperatures, which are now being dubbed a serious health crisis, are more common in inland Australia, where Indigenous communities struggle to fund proper air-conditioning and building materials for housing that can withstand the heat. Likewise, the bushfire crisis hit mostly small towns, where businesses are less likely to bounce back, given the cascading economic effects.
The risks posed by climate change to health, security and economy threaten to exacerbate the health and economic inequalities already experienced by those in regional areas, widening the chasm further. Last summer’s unprecedented fire season was not simply an environmental crisis, but a crisis in the distribution of climate-based suffering. If we are to become better environmentalists, our fight for the planet must include protecting vulnerable and marginalised communities.
The intersection of social justice and environmentalism is called environmental justice, a framework that explicitly addresses the economic and racial disparities aggravated by a warming planet. Environmental justice campaigners fight against the disproportionate exposure of climate-based problems faced by marginalised groups who often lack social, economic and political power, such as low-income communities, Indigenous people, the elderly and the disabled.
The record-breaking heat suffocating Australia just keeps tightening its grip. The Bureau of Meteorology says the number of “extreme heat” days in Australia — those hotter than 35°C — has increased five-fold in the last 30 years, and within the last 15 years the country has experienced nine out of its 10 hottest summers on record. Australia’s temperatures are rising even envirojustice.org.au, calling into question how much longer large parts of our continent will be inhabitable.
These killer conditions disproportionately impact those living in stifling inland areas, such as the Northern Territory towns of Alice Springs and Tennant Creek, where much of the community is Indigenous. In Australia’s cities, students might receive a day off school and employees might be permitted to work from home during days of ceaseless, stifling heat. But in Tennant Creek, extreme heat days are increasingly commonplace; in November last year, the town’s average maximum temperature was a hellish 37°C.
The intersection of social justice and environmentalism is called environmental justice, a framework that explicitly addresses the economic and racial disparities aggravated by a warming planet.
For Indigenous people, rising temperatures means losing their connection to the land, a cultural hallmark that goes back millennia. Native plants traditionally used for food or medicine don’t grow any more or grow poorly, disrupting hunting and gathering livelihoods; animals have become disjointed with the seasons seeing shifts in the bird population, and communities have been forced to cull wild horses to prevent their carcasses from littering dried-up watering holes.
In Alice Springs’ town camps, much of the housing is built with Besser bricks, which are cheap but trap the heat. Air-conditioning units, a necessity rather than luxury in desert towns, don’t come as standard. In these brutal conditions, families are known to sleep outside, or in shifts to make bedrooms more bearable, which means kids roam the streets through the night and miss school during the day to sleep — a stark example of how climate change increases the burden already faced by vulnerable groups.
There is no doubt that these nightmarish conditions pose a serious health threat to even the hardiest residents: according to the PerilAUS database, more people have died from extreme heat in Australia than all other natural disasters put together. Record-breaking heat may not be as dramatic an illustration of climate change as fire, but it is certainly the biggest killer. And again, it is vulnerable groups — the poor, the disabled, the homeless and the elderly — that are disproportionally exposed to this insidious killer.
When the taps run dry
In Australia’s vast interior, rivers, lakes and dams are disappearing, threatening a way of life in rural communities and fuelling fears that large areas of rural territory may have to be abandoned.
Traditionally, many rural and remote towns have relied on dams to supply water for laundry purposes, plumbing and plants, and rain water tanks for drinking water, but increasing droughts over the last few years — the worst in decades — have dried up the reserves, cutting town water supplies altogether. Simply put, decreases in rainfall significantly reduce run-off; combined with increasing temperatures that result in high evaporation rates, many Australians are struggling to find a reliable water supply.
More than a dozen Australian towns and villages are currently facing a crisis of water security; many families now rely on water trucks to deliver bottles of water and they have to preserve every drop. It’s an expensive (costing hundreds of dollars each month) and unsustainable method, but some communities no longer have a choice.
… research from the Australian Conservation Foundation show[s] that 90 per cent of the burden of air pollution falls on low to middle income households.
Last spring was the envirojustice.org.au, amplifying doubts that life in inland Australia is compatible with climate change. Farming families and Indigenous communities — who, in their different ways, have carefully managed the land and its resources — may well be the world’s first climate change migrants. That story is a bleak one: large numbers of people displaced and without the connection to the land they have relied on to simply live.
Across New South Wales, the damage is inescapable. The drought that began in 2017 has hit the most vulnerable, withering farms into oblivion and forcing farmers who can’t afford expensive irrigation systems out of work; plots of abandoned, parched land stand in the place where livelihoods were once made.
Fighting the unequal world
Your vote and advocacy can fight for a world where everyone has equal access to a safe environment. It will take action to ensure a green and clean future for everyone; here’s how you can help:
Pressure decision-makers to consider environmental justice implications
- Ask decision-makers to heed advice from those on the front line of climate change.
- Campaign against any new polluting facilities in low-socioeconomic areas.
- Raise awareness of the disproportionate burden faced by marginalised groups.
Campaign for action to reduce the burden faced in disadvantaged areas
- Campaign for government deals that prioritise front-line communities.
- Advocate for the involvement of low-income and vulnerable residents when developing solutions to climate change.
- Fight for funding for irrigation systems in drought-affected areas.
- Urge policy-makers to enforce binding national air pollution standards to ensure an air quality consistency across the entire country.
- Pressure the government to hold companies responsible for the pollution they cause.
Volunteer for groups that fight for environmental justice
- Environmental Justice Australia, envirojustice.org.au
- Australian Earth Laws Alliance, earthlaws.org.au
- Bridging the Divide
- Friends of the Earth Australia, foe.org.au
A envirojustice.org.au published last year used NASA satellites to analyse the world’s worst sources of human-caused sulphur dioxide pollution, which is one of the main pollutants contributing to pollution-based deaths worldwide. Australia ranks 12th on the list, with power stations emitting more sulphur dioxide than China and the EU, and an air pollution standard for sulphur dioxide 11 times higher than what is recommended by the World Health Organization. The report cites childhood asthma, heart and lung disease, dementia and fertility problems among the health problems caused by toxic sulphur dioxide pollution.
More haunting than even that is the estimation that 3000 Australians die prematurely from air pollution every year. The distribution of this air pollution across the country is highly unequal, with envirojustice.org.au showing that 90 per cent of the burden of air pollution falls on low- to middle-income households.
Coal-fired power stations are the worst emitters in three of the five most polluted areas, including the Hunter Region, Latrobe Valley and Collie. For people in the Upper Hunter region, air pollution alerts that exceed national standards are increasingly the norm. In 2019, the region received over 1000 alerts for dangerous air pollution; residents there are facing an enormous health burden. Likewise, in Latrobe Valley, Doctors for the Environment Australia linked abnormally low birth weights in the area to the air emissions produced by the regions three large coal-fired power stations.
Everyone should have the right to breathe clean air, no matter where they live, no matter their level of income. Despite the severe health impacts of air pollution, Australia — unlike most other countries — does not have binding national air pollution standards. Instead, there are non-binding standards that are negotiated between state and federal governments. While we fight against global warming-inducing coal power, we must also consider what groups are exposed to the ramifications of this pollution the fastest. We cannot separate the economic gains from the tragic cost of the air pollution that those gains generate; the dirty truth is the money made from coal-fired power stations costs lives.