Climate change and environmental racism


The power of the United States is built not only on imperialism around the globe, but on the oppression and hyper-exploitation of Indigenous peoples, Black people, and people of color on its claimed territory. As a direct result, these groups are among the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change as well as to capitalism’s ongoing assault on the environment.

Stop Cop City

Atlanta’s Cop City is one of the most visible battlefields in the struggle against Black oppression in the United States. If built, on the edge of a predominantly Black neighborhood, the facility would train police from across the country in the suppression of protests and mass movements. It is planned for 85 acres of the 300-acre Weelaunee urban forest, and would also harm both the local environment and human health.

Urban nature and greenery are associated with a variety of positive effects on health. They improve air quality, reduce storm water runoff, and promote community and mental health. Further, they reduce the severity of the urban heat island effect—higher temperatures caused by the absorption and retention of heat by asphalt, pavement, and buildings.

However, access to urban greenery is uneven. On average, the poorest quarter of Americans in urban areas, 85% of whom are people of color, possess forest coverage of under 20%. The richest half, 76% of whom are white, have an average forest coverage of 35%. As a result, Black people in urban areas face temperatures that are much higher than in mainly white neighborhoods. [1][2] In Washington, D.C., for instance, the difference between the majority Black inner city and surrounding areas is as much as 17°F. The severity of the heat island effect will only grow as the climate crisis continues.

Atlanta is a partial exception; it is a majority Black city known for its tree cover and urban greenery. However, it is under constant assault by capitalist interests, of which Cop City is only a part. Stop Cop City is a struggle not only against police oppression but for the health of the entire city, and particularly those who are most vulnerable.

Thacker Pass lithium mine

The Indigenous peoples of the land occupied by the U.S. have long been a target of environmental racism. Over centuries of continuing dislocation, expropriation, and genocide, they have been forced onto land seen as unproductive or unsuited for exploitation, which is particularly vulnerable to climate change and subjected to overcrowding, poor housing, lack of utilities, and inadequate access to health care. Capital views this land as marginal, and the peoples living on it as disposable labor at best and an obstacle at worst. As a result, these lands become “sacrifice zones” for extraction, industry, and waste without regard to effects on environmental and human health.

Thacker Pass Lithium Mine, a proposed lithium extraction and processing complex spanning some 18,000 acres of federally claimed Newe and Numu land in northern Nevada, is just one recent example. If built, it will consume 3224 gallons of groundwater a minute, produce as much CO2 as a small city, and will leave 353.6 million cubic yards of toxic and radioactive tailings in its wake.[3] This is before considering the cost of man-camps on women and two-spirit people, and destruction of sacred and burial sites.

Rushed through in the last days of the Trump presidency, the mine now receives support from the Democrats in the interests of vehicle and electronics manufacturers, and has been greenwashed through false promises of sustainability and the supposed solution of electric cars. Meanwhile, local peoples are forced to choose between protecting their land, or a job at its expense in a region with few other options.

Despite this, Newe and Numu people and their supporters continue to fight the mine. On one end, conservation groups and reservations affected by the project have taken the federal government and Lithium Nevada to court for their failure to get informed consent, and the disastrous effects the project will have on local and environmental health. At the same time, activists work to organize protests and educational events to build mass opposition. If the struggle intensifies, it could become another Standing Rock, mobilizing people across the continent in defense of the land.

Latine farmers and environmental racism

Much of the United States’ agriculture is built on the backs of hyper-exploited Latine labor. As of 2016, 75% of hired U.S. farm workers were immigrants from Latin America, and 50% were undocumented.[4] The majority of these workers work in states such as California, Texas, Arizona, and Florida due to the labor-intensive crops grown in these regions.

Already, these workers have to deal with a wide range of environmental and workplace threats to their health. Farm workers die from heat-related illnesses at a rate 20 times higher than the general U.S. population, with the threat increased by poor working conditions, including lack of shade and water. Latines made up a third of all worker heat deaths since 2010, according to an NPS/Columbia study. This will only worsen under the heat waves induced by global warming.[5] And yet, just as the temperature topped 115˚ in some parts of Texas last June, Gov. Greg Abbott signed legislation prohibiting any city or county in the state from passing laws requiring shade, rest, and water breaks for outdoor workers.

These workers are also at risk from physical injury, pesticide and air pollution exposure (with some farms spraying while the fields are worked), and unsafe machinery. Even off the job, many farm workers deal with poor, un-cooled housing, often segregated, without the resources to deal with the effects of climate or pollution.

Farm workers are often paid on a piecework basis, and are pressured to push themselves past their limit and to continue work under unsafe conditions in order to secure a paycheck. Simultaneously, those who are undocumented live under the shadow of having ICE called if their employer is unsatisfied. Despite these obstacles, many continue to attempt to organize to demand recognition and rights.

A 2019 poll found that 70% of Latines and 57% of Black people are alarmed or concerned with global warming, compared to only 49% of whites.[6] This, alongside their place as a vanguard in the above struggles, reflects consciousness that oppressed groups will bear the brunt of its effects. Our task must be to do everything we can to build support for these fights. Only by this means can we hope to connect them and build an effective movement for an environmentally sustainable—of necessity socialist—future.


[1] – Disproportionate exposure to urban heat island intensity across major US cities | Nature Communications

[2] – The tree cover and temperature disparity in US urbanized areas: Quantifying the association with income across 5,723 communities | PLOS ONE

[3] –

[4] – Environmental Health Threats to Latino Migrant Farmworkers (

[5] – Heat-Related Deaths Among Crop Workers — United States, 1992–2006 (

[6] – Which racial/ethnic groups care most about climate change? – Yale Program on Climate Change Communication

Photo: Ethan Miller / Getty Images

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