Intersectionality in the environmental movement

At the beginning of March, an independent group of United Nations human rights experts released a statement calling for an immediate end to further industrialisation of an area along the Mississippi river in Louisiana known as “Cancer Alley”, in what they considered to be a case of “environmental racism”. Extending between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, the region previously known as “Plantation country”, and where for decades African slaves were forced to work, is now home to 150 oil refineries, plastic manufacturing plants and other chemical facilities. The area, primarily inhabited by an African American community, has been on the news due to the overwhelming number of cancer cases, respiratory diseases and other health problems among its population.

The “Cancer Alley” case provides, as I seek to illustrate below, a perfect condensed example of the imperious need to incorporate the concept of intersectionality in environmental movements. Coined in the late 80s by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectionality provides a frame that acknowledges that many of the world’s social problems are often overlapping, creating multiple levels of social injustice. Such a framework aims to shed light on those who fall through the cracks of the separate silos approach characteristic of the normative mindset. Based on the notion that all human beings have intersecting identities, Intersectional Theory explores how an individual’s overlapping cultural, political and social identities all influence the way they are able to experience the world around them.

But why is that relevant to the environmental movement? As Naomi Klein argues in her most recent book, although the current climate emergency is physically caused by the cumulative amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, it reflects the still prevailing extractive mindset through which we have been looking at the Earth and the majority of its inhabitants as resources to be used and then discarded in the process of endless expansion. When it comes to climate action and environmental activism, justice must be put at the centre of the transition towards a low-carbon society.

It was precisely this realisation that led Leah Thomas, environmental activist and writer with a background in Environmental Science and Policy, to create the Intersectional Environmentalism movement. Drawing on Crenshaw’ work, Intersectional Environmentalism seeks to investigate how injustices happening to people - especially marginalised groups - and the planet are interconnected. Going beyond academic research, intersectional environmental activism aims to support and provide a platform for the voices of those who are most affected by the climate crisis, and which are too often ignored.

Bringing an intersectional approach to the environmental movement requires drawing connections and working together with other social movements. But this is no easy task. Most of us are used to compartmentalising each crisis into independent boxes. In addressing the transition to a low-carbon society, it is essential to highlight how the overlapping crises the world is facing (climate change, racism, gender violence, rising inequalities, demagogic populism, ...) are strongly interlinked, and that, as a consequence, they can only be addressed through a systemic, historical and holistic vision of social and economic transformation.

Focusing on the “Cancer Alley” case, many are the connections that can be drawn between environmental justice and social justice. It has been thoroughly reported that minorities are disproportionately more likely to live in areas impacted by pollution and/or susceptible to the effects of climate change. Nonetheless, governments and political representatives have continuously failed to protect these communities. For instance, despite the 2015 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the US environmental body, confirming that there was a higher risk of cancer in the “Cancer Alley” region, approval was granted in 2018 for the development of yet another plastic plant and two other methanol production complexes. UN experts report that the pollution from the new plastic plant alone would lead to a duplication of the cancer risk in the area, disproportionately affecting African American residents.

In fact, data from the EPA shows that, in the predominantly African American districts of the area, the risk of cancer could be as high as 105 cases per million, compared to up to 75 per million in predominantly white ones. Besides exacerbating environmental pollution, the impacts of that pollution, by affecting primarily the African American community, would also augment the gap in the quality of life and health between BIPOC and white communities - environmental racism.

As mentioned above, the lower Mississippi River area was once a region of vast plantations, where enslaved Africans worked. Since many within the African American community in the area, those most affected by the pollution from the petrochemical plants, are the descendants of those enslaved Africans, there are legitimate grounds for calling on governments “to recognise and pay reparations” for continuous harm perpetrated against the African American community “rooted in slavery and colonialism”.

But the links between racism and repair, and climate activism are not the only ones that can be drawn between social problems and the climate crisis. Health, workers’ rights, gender discrimination, political movements and climate change also interlink.

Health care and climate change

In a study published earlier this year, a group of scientists reported that one in every five deaths that occurred in 2018 was caused by air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels. This value exceeds the combined annual number of deaths from smoking and malaria. A clear link was found between countries with the highest death toll and those having the biggest consumption of fossil fuels for powering plants, homes and vehicles.

An interesting contrast could be observed between the numbers registered in both Europe and the US, one in ten, and those of eastern Asia (including China), three times that value. This regional discrepancy is also symptomatic of the expansionist and imperialist mindset that has somehow prevailed in the western world, where emissions have been mostly lower through the shift of western industries to Asia. In a very real sense, low-paid jobs, poor working conditions and pollution in eastern Asia serve to ensure that the insatiable consumer culture is continuously being fed.

The same researchers are emphatic in stating that pollution from fossil fuel burning is a “key contributor to the global burden of mortality and disease”, estimating that they represent a burden of US$2.9tn in global economic and health costs. Thus, it becomes evident that not only does the burning of fossil fuels contribute to the continuous increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, it also represents a staggering threat to public health.

Even under a scenario where the world moves quickly towards lowering greenhouse gas emissions, the natural disasters we are already experiencing (storms, fires, droughts, floods), will become increasingly more common in the future. When these natural disasters meet areas and communities with health care systems violently neglected or stripped off by austerity, thousands will pay with their lives. A good example of this was Puerto Rico’s situation after hurricane Maria in 2017.

Job security and climate change

One of the most commonly raised questions against a fast transition towards a low-carbon economy is what would happen to the vast number of workers who are currently employed by fossil fuel companies, or whose jobs are dependent on the extractive industries whose activities must be halted. It is a fair and utterly important question, and job guarantees are key for a rapid and just transition.

The COVID-19 pandemic led to a decrease in air travel and lowered demand for fuels, accelerating the closure of several high polluting activities. Numerous stories of plants’ closures, with entire work forces losing their jobs, have made the news during the past year. It is only natural for the transition to a low-carbon economy to be faced with scepticism and fear by many. Ensuring job security is, therefore, of the utmost importance to achieve a rapid and just transition towards a low-carbon economy.

Workers from fossil fuel and other high polluting companies, as well as those whose jobs are dependent on these industries, should be given access to training programmes before seeing their jobs endangered. Many new sectors will be emerging and expanding, and so, ensuring that workers have access to training in the new skills required in those sectors, and that can take time to upskill while maintaining their jobs, is mandatory. Job security reduces the pressure on workers to remain attached to precarious jobs in environmentally detrimental activities, and allows for their integration into new projects, sometimes even within the same company as it changes its business model to adapt to market demands.

Equal opportunities and climate change

Childcare, education, and caring professions (which are mostly performed by women) are obvious examples of low carbon jobs. Many have called for these to be considered under the “green jobs” umbrella often evoked in transition policies. Such inclusion should ensure that they receive the same protection, investments and living wages as those of (majority male-dominated) workforces in the renewable energy sector, industrial efficiency, building and house retrofitting, and public transit sectors. In order to ensure equal opportunities as we move towards a low-carbon society, priority should be given to the adoption of policies relating to family leave, pay equity and free childcare.

Populism and climate change

Fear is inherent to change. The dramatic departure from the status quo required to cope with the climate emergency can be overwhelming. Since demagogic populist movements feed on people’s fears, the rise of nationalist, authoritarian, racist and xenophobic movements that has been taking place around the world may not be a surprise. So, when it comes to climate action and the transition to a low-carbon society, it is essential that these are rooted in justice (environmental, racial, gender, economic).

A political agenda that seeks to address the climate crisis, such as the Green New Deal (GND), must aim at the same time to close racial, gender and wealth gaps, eliminate poverty, create safe, stable and good jobs, ensure a universal and public health care system, fair access to housing and education. Only then it can gather the outside support from social movements, unions, and local communities required to make it a sustainable and tangible reality. Additionally, addressing the social insecurities prevents the growth of demagogic populist movements.

Seeking to debunk the claim often made by the right that the GND consists only of a compilation of left-wing wishes, such political agendas must provide a cohesive action plan for the future, addressing the many facets of everyday life from healthcare to employment. Making the case for how these parts of life overlap is key to achieving the degree of social and economic transformation that coping with climate disruption requires.

Failing to understand how the multiple crises the world is facing are inextricably interconnected has been a recipe for failure in addressing them. It is time we stop playing “my crisis is more urgent than yours”, because, as we have seen, they are often inseparable. In the words of Audre Lorde, “there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives”. A prosperous, transformative and sustainable environmental movement must be a just, fair and inclusive one, and that is only possible through the adoption of an intersectional approach, guaranteeing that no one falls through the cracks.