By Dr. Kevork N Abazajian
In his Christmas Sermon, on December 24, 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We must either learn to live together as brothers or we are all going to perish together as fools.” The tremendous impact of the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. cannot be overstated. Among his many directions of impact, he is also credited with “planting the seeds” of the environmental justice movement as highlighted by Attorney General Eric Holder in 2011.
In the 1970’s environmental justice advocates started demonstrating and fighting against numerous cases of environmentally damaging facilities in and around neighborhoods with a higher fraction of racial minorities. In 1983 the General Accounting Office produced one of the first studies on the distribution of environmental risks, which confirmed that racial minorities face a greater level of environmental risks. Even when accounting for income disparities, race was found to be a strong predictor for facing environmental hazards. A 2003 report by the National Academy of Public Administration found that historical and current local land-use and zoning policies are “a root enabling cause of disproportionate burdens [and] environmental injustice.”
A glaring ongoing case of environmental injustice is the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, where the racial makeup is 57% African-American. The change of the source of municipal water supply was done without a proper, careful environmental science assessment of the safety of that water change policy, which has led to severe consequences. This includes 6,000 to 12,000 children being exposed to drinking water with high levels of lead which leads to a high risk of serious health problems, and could be linked to an outbreak of Legionnaire’s Disease. The devaluation of communities of color, and the lack of political representation and power by the local population was a major cause of why this crisis has happened as well as why it has taken so long for this problem to gain attention and have steps put in place for its resolution.
There is also a disconnection between representation and advocacy for solution on a global scale, where climate change is already affecting the environment, and affecting the poor and marginalized disproportionately. In 2012, the World Bank reported that climate change would hit poorer countries hardest. In particular, the climate report describes how developing countries could struggle in a warmer world. For example, a growing number of studies suggest that agricultural production could be greatly harmed under 3°C or 4°C of warming. Bangladesh, Egypt, Vietnam, and parts of Africa, long dependent upon agricultural production for their survival, would also see large tracts of farmland made unusable by rising seas. “It seems clear,” the report concludes, “that climate change in a 4°C world could seriously undermine poverty alleviation in many regions.” In Bangladesh alone, the region where 72 million people currently live is threatened by rising seas. On a global scale, environmental injustice disproportionately affects those ethnicities and races with reduced political power and representation. This is due to historical inequities and racial injustice, as well as ongoing racism that treats certain groups of people as less valuable and even less human than others.
From the water crisis in Flint, Michigan to the global consequences of climate change on more vulnerable communities worldwide, the valuable input from our sciences is essential in determining the scope and seriousness of environmental injustice, and is essential to finding remedies for their alleviation. Scientists can and must play a crucial role in determining the environmental risks posed on communities, and must be at the table when policies and practices are being implemented. The risks of environmental damage may exist for everyone, but they are acute to the vulnerable. To quote Martin Luther King, Jr., again, “There is no human circumstance more tragic than the persisting existence of a harmful condition for which a remedy is readily available.”