Racial Justice Is Climate Justice — and It Can’t Wait

"Yes, individual people are often racist. But the bigger problem is the way racism is baked into our institutions."


Over the past two weeks, you’ve hopefully been looking inward and asking some tough questions: Do I support a racist system? Am I doing enough to protect Black lives?

Maybe you’ve even taken some actions, like talking to your friends and family about police brutality, posting on social media, donating to organizations and campaigns, or buying from Black-owned businesses.

But at the end of all these individual actions, you may find yourself feeling: This isn’t enough. That all your conversations and posts and reflection and purchases are good, but not good enough.

That’s because you’re right. It isn’t enough, because real change requires more than individual action.

In our work on climate change, we’ve seen the same dynamic play out: People focus on getting rid of plastic straws rather than getting rid of coal plants. They fixate on recycling and forget the structures that lock them into a polluting, carbon- intensive society. This isn’t by accident. The fossil fuel company BP popularized the idea of a carbon footprint”— your personal and completely insignificant individual contribution to climate change — through a well-funded campaign in 2005. This idea keeps us blaming ourselves, rather than blaming fossil fuel companies.

We’ve got structural problems

We can all try to pitch in and do more as individuals. But the fact remains: Both police violence against Black people and the climate crisis are structural problems.

Yes, individual people are often racist. But the bigger problem is the way racism is baked into our institutions. Our laws and policies have segregated Black people into poorer neighborhoods, drained resources from their schools, paid them lower wages, provided them with fewer jobs, and locked them in jails.

In states where these racial disparities are higher, police are more likely to kill unarmed Black Americans.

Similarly, climate change is a structural problem. We’ve all spent the last several months living low carbon footprint lifestyles:: Almost no one is flying or driving very much. Yet, emissions will likely fall by only 8% this year. And here’s a stunning fact: we need to cut emissions by that amount every year to keep warming below 1.5 °C.

Our lockdown was a test of the limits of individual solutions to the climate crisis. We’ve already reached the limit. Individual actions are simply insufficient.

It’s our institutions that ensure we keep pumping out carbon emissions year after year — just 100 fossil fuel companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions since the late 1980s.

If we change the system, we can tackle racial disparities and the climate crisis even as racist police officers and fossil fuel executives continue to exist. We don’t have to change these individuals’ minds. We can instead change the laws that currently allow these people to continue to harm others with impunity.

Many people now understand that the climate crisis and police brutality are both structural problems. In the past year we’ve seen large protests against the climate crisis and police brutality. People are taking to the street to demand we change the system.

How individuals can contribute to systemic change

With the pandemic ongoing, you might not feel comfortable joining protests right now. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t push for systemic policy changes from home.

You can write to your city council to ask them to allocate less funding towards the police. Over three decades, police budgets have ballooned 141%. Over the same time period, higher education budgets grew by just 6%, and we’ve barely made a dent in tackling the climate crisis.

We currently spend more than $100 billion each year on the police — and the figure is closer to $200 billion when we add incarceration costs. Even as violent crime and property damage have fallen precipitously, we are locking more and more people in jail each year. For-profit-prisons have seen record earnings under these aggressive incarceration policies.

These funds could be reallocated to starved local services, like mental health support, community programs, housing, and public transit. That would save a lot of lives, not just by reducing police murders, but also by reducing air pollution.

We can also build a bigger coalition to tackle the climate crisis by ensuring that communities of color are centered in our environmental solutions. Support for climate action is higher among Black and Hispanic/Latinx Americans. And these groups are more supportive of a Green New Deal.

That’s not surprising, because pollution hits the communities who are the least responsible for it the hardest, and those are often communities of color. We place most of our dirtiest infrastructure, including coal and fossil gas plants, in these communities. As a result, the air in these Black, Brown, and Native communities is thick with tiny particle pollution and other toxics. Asthma rates for Black children are twice as high as for White children. These higher pollution rates also make Black Americans two times more likely to die from COVID-19.

Our fossil fuel energy system means that Black Americans across the country can’t breathe.

Justice can’t wait

Both racial injustice and the climate crisis have long been seen as niche issues, even among some liberals. The Democratic primary debates gave them very little time. But transforming our energy, policing, and criminal justice systems needs attention now. People die while we delay changing laws.

We are dreaming of a better world. A world where our laws do not continue to inflict harms on the Black community. A world divested from fossil fuels, police brutality, and the carceral state. A world with clean air, well funded public transit, and good paying jobs.

Right now, so many Americans are unemployed, with the rate highest among Black Americans. We can put everyone to work to build this better world because there is so much work to do. We need to build rail systems connecting our homes to work, waves of solar arrays to harness the sun and power electric vehicle charging stations, efficient and insulated homes to shelter those who have lived a lifetime on the streets.

If we want to tackle our society’s linked crises, we need more than individual actions. We need to demand our governments make better choices. Because climate justice is racial justice. And it can’t wait.

Nikayla Jefferson (@kayla_nikayla) is an organizer with the Sunrise Movement and an incoming doctoral student at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Leah C. Stokes (@leahstokes) is an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the author of Short Circuiting Policy.

Leah C. Stokes
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Leah C. Stokes (@leahstokes) is an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the author of Short Circuiting Policy.

Nikayla Jefferson
+ posts

Nikayla Jefferson is a writer with the Sunrise Movement, and a graduate student in political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara.