A constant pressure looms over all of our society, including our activists and government leaders, to figure out what the best approach to solving the increasingly prevalent problems of the climate crisis is. The discourse surrounding the climate crisis has always argued that everyone must come together to tackle this growing issue, as it impacts all people globally. 

However, this kind of rhetoric makes it seem as if everyone has been equally impacted by the climate crisis. Although we need unity to address the climate crisis, we should recognize that the impacts of the climate crisis are unequal. The climate crisis has disproportionately impacted Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC) communities worldwide. 

To create and implement unified solutions for the climate crisis, we must acknowledge the disproportionate impacts BIPOC communities have faced from the climate crisis. Specifically, we must address environmental racism and how it has exacerbated these issues. 

BIPOC communities face evident climate disparities at the hands of powerful governmental institutions and corporations as a result of environmental racism. Environmental racism describes how BIPOC communities have been disproportionately affected by health and financial burdens in the climate crisis era due to government institutions and various oil and gas industries enforcing discriminatory policies and practices that increase their exposure to high pollution levels and toxic waste. Importantly, environmental racism is part of the colonial legacies that still prevail in Canada and across the globe. 

Thus, I believe exploring some examples of environmental racism is critical in prompting timely policy reform and taking action to help those who are impacted by the perils of environmental racism. 

North America’s track record 

One part of Canada’s racist legislature with colonial roots is the Indian Act, which serves as the basis of environmental racism that impacts Indigenous communities. For instance, the maximum garbage dumping penalty on Indigenous land is $100 according to the Indian Reserve Waste Disposal Regulations, which were adopted under the Indian Act. Meanwhile, the maximum penalty for dumping waste on land that is property of the federal and provincial governments ranges from $2,000 to one million dollars. Dumping waste haphazardly causes landfills that directly emit greenhouse gases, which in turn contributes to the climate crisis such as increased temperatures. The disparity between penalties gives greater leniency to dumping waste on Indigenous land and therefore reinforces environmental racism while causing environmental degradation, neglecting the lives of Indigenous peoples and only working to benefit the privileged. 

Similarly, the ‘Chemical Valley’ in Sarnia, Ontario is an example of environmental racism. In the Chemical Valley, the Aamjiwnaang First Nation resides near more than 60 industrial plants, including petrochemical and coal-fired plants, which contribute to more than one-fifth of Ontario’s total greenhouse gas emissions. As a result, Aamjiwnaang people on the land are exposed to high levels of sulphur dioxide, particulate matter, benzene, and other harmful chemicals. These chemicals cause high levels of air pollution like smog, rapid temperature increases, and acid rain. 

Due to their high exposure to toxic chemicals emitted from surrounding factories, Aamjiwnaang people on the land also face higher levels of chronic headaches, asthma, cancer, and miscarriages. The government’s failure to enforce sanctions on the factories testifies to its lack of effective ways to halt pollution and its consistent disrespect for the lives of Indigenous peoples. 

Furthermore, BIPOC communities are more likely to live in areas highly susceptible to natural disasters, which further attests to the prevalence of environmental racism across North America. This is due to legacies of colonialism and current discriminatory practices that have pushed BIPOC communities to live in poor-quality conditions. For instance, a study showed that in New Orleans, where Hurricane Katrina hit particularly hard, Black people comprised more than 80 per cent of the people who had lost their homes. Hence, with climate events rising, BIPOC communities will be the ones to take the brunt of these environmental forces. 

Possible solutions to environmental racism

With the climate crisis becoming an imminent threat to humanity, solutions to it must acknowledge environmental racism. Policymakers and government officials must take a socioecological perspective that takes into account social factors such as ethnicity and socioeconomic status when integrating policies that work effectively against racism and environmental regulatory policies. 

We must use this intersectional approach to create climate policies that acknowledge BIPOC communities while making meaningful changes regarding the climate crisis. I believe that more inclusive policies may even lead to better public acceptance of novel climate policies. Thus, it is the responsibility of government institutions to engage directly with marginalized communities, to listen to their experiences with environmental racism, and to address their concerns through implementing inclusive policies. 

As students, we must help bring environmental racism to public discourse. This could involve lobbying the government and advocating for policy reform surrounding environmental racism. It could also take form in student-led organizations that specifically address environmental racism and can advocate for change by fostering safe spaces for community engagement. 

Additionally, we can incorporate environmental justice issues into our academic careers, whether it’s through graduate school research or in the next paper you write for your coursework. Writing about environmental racism acknowledges its existence and places it on the table for discussion. Finally, our social media platforms can amplify diverse voices that come from marginalized communities and aid in disseminating knowledge to educate others about environmental racism. 

I believe that unified solutions for the climate crisis can only be possible if everyone is accounted for — that begins by acknowledging the racial inequities that are exacerbated by environmental racism.

Dileesha Fernando is a fourth-year student at Woodsworth College studying human biology. She is the co-founder of Wellus U of T.