As we work towards transitioning to a low-carbon future, issues of equity, justice, and inclusion need to be at the center of the conversation to ensure new systems do not perpetuate inequities of the past. Below we explore how the next generation of climate leaders are addressing equity in the policies they advocate for.
“I have seen the impact of climate change on my community members, such as extreme heat and lack of trees in urban, more low-income, majority POC areas in South Phoenix. Most people think of climate change as this distant, abstract concept that melts down glaciers in the Arctic, but I’ve seen the issue directly impact my community and others around it, so I chose to get involved.”
– Aditi Narayanan, youth climate activist
The History of Environmental Justice in the U.S.
The historic pattern of policies and practices that have systematically perpetuated racial and economic inequality extend to climate change and environmental impacts, too. In fact, both climate change and pollution disproportionately affect vulnerable and marginalized communities. 80% of Latinos live in areas that do not meet Environmental Protection Agency standards for air quality, while 68% of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal plant. These issues compound into negative health impacts for communities that tend to already be overburdened by a lack of access to public services.
Due to zoning laws, permitting for polluting-intensive industries, and importantly, a lack of affordable housing in cities, climate change and its correlated effects do not affect all of us equally. If we’re not being intentional about addressing inequity in these systems of wealth, health, and education, they will continue to marginalize certain populations.
In response to discriminatory environmental practices of the 1980s, the U.S. environmental justice movement was formed and championed by community leaders, allies, and youth. However, incidents where poor and minority communities are subject to worse environmental conditions have been occurring for decades and still continue today, especially in light of the ongoing climate and environmental crises.
Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005, infamously highlighted the already existing economic, racial, and social disparities among residents of the gulf coast. The poorest, predominantly black residents lived in the neighborhoods most susceptible to flooding in extreme weather. The existing wealth gap between white residents and residents of color was already actively perpetuated by a history of racism, segregation, and inequity in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Going all the way back to zoning ordinances that kept black families out of mostly white neighborhoods in the early 1900s, and urban renewal projects of the early 1950s that displaced African-American residents, institutional racism in the state has a long history. Even in the aftermath of Katrina, black residents were often disadvantaged in rebuilding efforts, which often ignored or did not fully address the issues of segregation and inequity in the city.
Climate justice has emerged as an interconnected term that focuses on ensuring a just transition away from a carbon-based economy and towards a green future that benefits everyone. As we have seen this year around the world, teens and young adults have taken the lead in the climate movement, and are taking charge of their own future. Many are making sure that this future is just and equitable for all.
A Conversation with Aditi Narayanan
One of the students making an impact in the movement is 16-year-old Aditi Narayanan, a high school junior from Phoenix, Arizona who received national press coverage for her work on the Arizona Youth Climate Strike. Narayan also started a group in Phoenix called Zero Hour that lobbies for a political education campaign about climate justice. Zero Hour, a group founded and run by young people, has chapters all throughout the US, and it aims to bring attention to the “root causes” of climate change.
I spoke with Narayanan about her work, her goals, and what she hopes to achieve. For Narayanan, “knowing when to give others a voice, especially when they are most impacted by an issue,” is essential in climate activism. Narayanan has seen the impact climate change has on members of her community in South Phoenix, and specifically has seen how minority communities have been impacted. Seeing this is what inspired her to act. As a member of Generation Z, Narayanan and her peers will have to deal with the worst impacts of a changing climate. Because the threat is more pressing to young adults who will inherit the challenges we are unable to tackle, Narayanan believes that leaders and policymakers should listen to youth voices when it comes to climate activism. She says that “we are motivated by fear for our future and an unconditional love for our land.”
What does Narayanan think policymakers should do? Right now in Arizona, she is focusing on advocating for solar energy: “Extreme heat, lack of water, the use of solar energy, and fracking are all huge issues on the Arizona state legislature’s plate right now. Solar energy is one I care about most, as Arizona is so capable of using solar energy, but big energy companies are disincentivizing consumers from using solar, and in turn promoting fossil fuels. I am to promote the use of solar power in my community and others around it.” Along with her peers, she has worked with local lawmakers to draft legislation in addition to planning strikes and town halls, and recruiting and managing mass volunteer teams.
Although the threat of climate change is huge and can be daunting at times, Narayanan feels hopeful about the movement she is involved in. While noting that some have told her that fighting against climate change is hopeless, she says that most people in Phoenix are supportive and like her, are also motivated by the threat of climate change to future generations as well as the worsening impacts on their community.
In order to ensure a just transition, we have to be intentional about looking at solutions through an equity lens. Like Narayanan said, it is also crucial to give marginalized groups a voice and a seat at the table where these decisions are being made, especially when they are the ones most impacted by the issue. Doing this involves making activism accessible for all in a movement that is majority white and middle class. There is work to do, but the fight isn’t hopeless. Narayanan says, “what makes me hopeful…is the large audiences, full of outspoken, diverse voices from our youth strike and town hall meeting.” Advocates like Aditi are what keep us hopeful about a future made better for all in the face of the climate crisis.
Youth, as the future of the climate movement, are ensuring that equity and climate justice are prioritized in their fight for action against climate change. Carrying on the legacy of leaders that have fought for environmental justice for decades, younger generations can inspire, lead and make a real impact.