I am a habitual person; about four days a week this past summer, I biked south from my house in Wallingford to and around Mercer Island, traveling up and over Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. My route took me past the Seattle Police Department’s Capitol Hill precinct and through the former Capitol Hill Occupied Protest zone that launched Seattle to national prominence as a center for change. I tracked the ebbs and flows of the city’s dialogue. I passed through minutes after the police precinct had its windows smashed, and I continued to see how the building was boarded up, then surrounded with a chain-linked fence, and ultimately housed in a concrete barrier. I observed the near-daily peaceful protests and gatherings for solidarity and support of Black lives, and I watched as the already colorful neighborhood became increasingly clothed in new street art.
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has received international acclaim for its ability to build resistance and transform local policies, joining a global trend of decentralized leadership in human rights movements. Nationally, BLM has made “defund the police” a household phrase, driving rapid shifts in public opinion: polls show that a majority of Americans view the deaths of Black people as part of a systemic problem with policing in America. BLM aims to undo and rethink the way crime is approached and to help people understand the depth of the “defund” framework, which includes a national defunding of police and investment in community resources.
Crucially, this framework is informed by an intersectional approach. The struggle for racial justice is not isolated, but understood as being intrinsic to other movements for change that are mobilizing in response to injustices and crises. One of these crises is climate change: By seeing racism, policing policies, and climate change as linked issues and fundamentally altering the institutions that reinforce these linkages, we can begin to cultivate meaningful climate change resilience.
The scale and impact of the destruction from natural disasters** cannot be fully understood without considering the racism underlying climate change and subsequent state responses. Hurricane Katrina, for instance, is the sort of disaster whose occurrence will only increase under climate change. Katrina is deservedly a poster child for climate justice, and its lessons are so poignant, it deserves a revisit:
Plagued by competing narratives, catastrophic communication failure, and a vast lack of emergency preparedness, Hurricane Katrina exposed New Orleans’ racial and infrastructural inequities we still see throughout the entire country. Racially biased distribution of government funding resulted in subpar levee construction in Black neighborhoods, and Black people had a significantly higher likelihood of having a home damaged or destroyed by Katrina.
Prior to Katrina in 2005, the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) had a poor reputation, earned particularly through instances of abuse, misconduct, and criminal activity throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In a 1996 article, the New York Times described the NOPD as “a loose confederation of gangsters terrorizing sections of the city.” When the Category 5 hurricane struck nine years later, the department found itself underprepared and drenched in chaos, resulting in fatal outcomes for Black residents. In the week after Katrina hit New Orleans, police officers shot at least ten civilians, most of whom were Black, and killed three, including unarmed James Brissette and Ronald Madison, during an infamous incident on Danziger Bridge. The Department of Justice conducted a review of the department, finding patterns of unconstitutional conduct and violation of federal laws, and exposing the department’s flaws to a national audience.
In the face of Hurricane Katrina, Black residents were therefore imperiled by a dual vulnerability: a discriminatory police force and unequal flood protection. Since Katrina, NOPD has instituted several changes intended to restore community trust, including an independent police monitor and body cameras. But it should not have taken one of the most devastating events in American history, which took 1,800 lives and resulted in $125 billion in damages, to lead to policy change and expose unequal disaster preparedness.
About fifty miles north of the wealthy Silicon Valley area lies Richmond, California, home to a Chevron oil refinery that processes nearly 250,000 barrels of crude oil each day. California’s cap and trade policy for carbon emissions has created a market of pollution for the fossil fuel industry that disproportionately hurts Richmond’s Black and Brown residents. More than 80% of Richmond’s residents are people of color, and Richmond children have twice the rate of asthma as other children in Contra Costa County. A fire at the refinery in 2012 sent 15,000 people to local hospitals seeking treatment for respiratory distress, and in 2018, the city filed a suit against Chevron alleging public nuisance and negligence.
However, Richmond is financially dependent upon Chevron’s tax contributions. In 2008, Chevron agreed to give the city $30 million in exchange for permits to expand the refinery, with $11 million earmarked for the Richmond Police Department. Although recent community policing strategies have led to significant decreases in use of deadly force by police, a report by the Contra Costa County Racial Justice Task Force shows dramatic racial disparities at every stage of the criminal justice process and argues that communities of color are over-policed in the county.
Chevron’s roots therefore run deep in this company city, and by subsidizing an unequal criminal justice system and promoting negative health outcomes for people of color, they play a direct role in the environmental racism that Richmond residents experience. By instituting redistributive policies that redress legacies of racial inequity and reduce the need for policing, the city council could loosen Chevron’s sweeping clutch.
Social policies can shape patterns of health and disease, and there is a growing body of research indicating law enforcement policies and practices as social determinants of health. For example, residents in New York City neighborhoods with higher rates of stop and frisk are more likely to be in poor health. Qualitative analyses find that War on Drugs-era policies designed to surveil Black neighborhoods in Baltimore routinely undermine local social cohesion and lead to considerable stress. In one study, public health researchers describe police brutality as moving beyond physical force to include emotional violence, verbal assault, and psychological intimidation:
When faced with a threat, the body produces hormones and other signals that turn on the systems that are necessary for survival in the short term. These changes include accelerated heart rate and increased respiratory rate. But when the threat becomes reoccurring and persistent—as is the case with police brutality—the survival process becomes dangerous and causes rapid wear and tear on body organs and elevated allostatic load. Deterioration of organs and systems caused by increased allostatic load occurs more frequently in Black populations and can lead to conditions such as diabetes, stroke, ulcers, cognitive impairment, autoimmune disorders, accelerated aging, and death. (Alang, McAlpine, McCreedy, and Hardeman, 2017)
The current COVID-19 pandemic is a preview of how existing health disparities will widen due to climate change. The National Climate Assessment describes how existing health threats will intensify and new health threats will emerge from climate change’s disruption of physical, biological, and ecological systems. The health effects of these disruptions include increased respiratory and cardiovascular disease, changes in the prevalence and distribution of food- and water-borne illnesses and infectious diseases, threats to mental health, and injuries and premature death from extreme weather events. After recognizing policing practices as a social determinant of health and a source of health disparities, abolishing these practices can narrow public health gaps and promote equitable climate change resilience.
The environmental movement’s racist origins and historic reluctance to strongly advocate for racial justice mean Black people are less likely to identify as environmentalists, less likely to recreate in the “Great Outdoors,” and are underrepresented in mainstream environmental groups. Yet Black Americans care more about climate change and global warming than white Americans, and frontline communities are articulating the most radical solutions, because they are dealing with the most radical impacts. The vision and applicability of these solutions can help us mitigate climate change and adapt to its impacts.
As a white person, I have the privilege of being able to move through these conversations the way I bike through Capitol Hill; I can pedal home to a life where this conversation remains hypothetical. For many communities of color, however, these conversations are grounded in lived realities, and these connections are not novel. Seattle’s Got Green, Black Voice Collective, Puget Sound Sage, and other BIPOC activists have been working for decades and sending similar messages, exposing the intersections between Black Lives Matter and climate justice, building community, and raising consciousness long before those of us in mostly white, academic spaces began participating in the conversation.
It is not enough for climate scientists to continue business as usual and to operate under the assumption that the work they are already doing to address climate change will provide incidental benefits for communities of color. White people can and must maintain momentum and effect institutional change in accordance to Black communities’ demands, even as the dust settles and paintings fade. Institutional change can start by adopting and sustaining anti-racist behaviors, knowing when to give the floor to others and when to speak up, and using existing privilege and platforms to try to fundamentally dismantle the status quo. White people can turn words into actions by donating money, insisting that people and organizations consider the ways white people have benefited from institutionalized white supremacy, and promoting multi-faceted climate policies that will benefit the people whom climate change will, and has already, affected the most.
** In two weeks time, my friend and colleague, Leah Huff, will take a critical look at the concept of natural disasters and explore whether or not such a thing really exists.