Jacqueline Patterson and Jalisa Gilmore talked about COVID-19 and climate justice in an event hosted by the Columbia Science Review.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made many issues related to systemic racism unavoidable. One area where this issue has become particularly apparent (even though many may not have realized it was such a problem before) is that of environmental policy and protection. 

Environmental protection is an issue that is frequently talked about. But often left out of the conversation of environmental protections is the issue of intersectionality and environmental justice. When asked why she thinks environmental justice is less frequently talked about, Jalisa Gilmore, the research analyst for the New York Environmental Justice Alliance, noted that the spaces that people think about when they think of natural spaces have historically been dominated by white males. Thus, discussions surrounding these spaces have been dominated by these voices.

But environmental justice is an essential element of environmental policy. Low-income communities bear the brunt of the impact from polluting activities, something that the environmental justice movement seeks to address.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted this inequality in environmental quality: higher levels of air pollution are associated with higher mortality rates from the virus. This increased risk isn’t distributed equally. The areas that tend to have higher levels of air pollution, and thus higher risk, are predominantly low-income communities, leading to increased risk for these populations. 

Jaqueline Patterson, director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program, noted that the pandemic has increased awareness of these types of patterns of systemic environmental inequity and racism. Gilmore noted that with the pandemic, “people are finally seeming to get [systemic racism].” But Patterson noted that this is not simply an issue of system failure: the issue, she said, is the system itself, which is doing exactly what it is designed to do. 

In enacting change, both speakers noted that the problem can’t be addressed solely from a business or policy perspective, but rather needs to incorporate elements of both. Patterson stated that we need to hold corporations accountable as they continue to use racism as a tool to accrue power, but policy is also important. Gilmore noted that policy is what allows businesses to go into communities and pollute. Patterson also stressed that when we are designing solutions for communities, it is important to involve the community, rather than having outsiders develop a plan that really just ends up being a windfall for developers.

When asked whether she was optimistic about the fight for climate justice, Patterson said, “hopeful would be a stretch,” noting that “we aren’t even close” to the type of radical change needed to correct the extreme effects of racism in the US. She continued, saying that although the Biden administration has made significant commitments to addressing this type of inequality, they are only considered significant in comparison to what has been done in the past—which is very little. Gilmore added that although people have finally started to recognize that systemic racism is a problem, recognition alone won’t solve the problem.

When asked how we can be agents of change in our own communities, both Gilmore and Patterson noted that in addition to becoming educated about what the issues in your own community are, involvement with community-based organizations is often a great place to start. Patterson also suggested looking to the NAACP’s 20 Things We Can Do To Advance A Just And Sustainable Planet for a more detailed list of ways to be involved. 

the environment via Pixabay