By / par Martine Lokken, Chris Matzner, Joel Roediger, Mubdi Rahman, Dennis Crabtree, Pamela Freeman, Vincent Henault-Brunet (The CASCA Sustainability Committee, The CASCA Equity & Inclusivity Committee)
(Cassiopeia – Autumn / l’automne 2020)
Part 1: An Introduction to Environmental Racism
This year’s widespread protests in support of Wetʼsuwetʼen sovereignty, and in support of Black lives in the face of police brutality, have brought heightened attention to the racism and systemic racial inequalities that have long threatened Indigenous and Black people in North America. The astronomy community has been coming to terms with its own systemic racism , and it is important that we examine our field’s environmental impacts  through the same lens. In this moment, we in CASCA’s Sustainability Committee reflect on the many ways in which environmentalism and racism interact. Here we present some background on how these issues are intertwined with the climate crisis and environmental damage both globally and within Canada. In a later article with the Equity & Inclusivity Committee we will ask how we as astronomers have benefitted from and perpetuated racism, environmental or otherwise, and what we can do to change this.
The climate crisis is projected to deal a sequence of crushing blows to peoples of the arctic, equatorial, and oceanic regions of the world. Of those affected, the UN warns that Indigenous peoples face the most climate-based disruption because of their strong cultural and economic connections to the land on which they live . Indeed, this has already begun . Drought now affects a quarter of the world’s population, mainly in equatorial regions , leading to food insecurity and mass migration [6, 7]. Heat waves are on the rise, some now surpassing what humans can naturally survive . Last year, massive fires decimated the Australian landscape, damaging perhaps thousands of Indigenous cultural sites , while deliberate fires ate away at the home of the Amazon’s Indigenous people. This year’s Amazon fires could be even worse , and record heat waves are intensifying annual wildfires in Siberia . Vast floods have covered a quarter of Bangladesh , while rising seas are swallowing island nations . The distribution of global wealth plays a major role in deciding who can best survive these extreme events: while wealthy areas of developed nations are able to adapt to some of the effects of climate change through investment in infrastructure, the world’s poorest are disproportionately losing their homes, livelihoods, and even lives . Meanwhile, the worst per-capita contributors to the climate crisis are primarily located in the northern hemisphere  and led by wealthy nations such as Canada, the U.S., Australia, Saudi Arabia, and other major oil-producing countries. The disparities between the worst perpetrators of the climate crisis versus those who suffer the greatest impacts correlate with inequalities of wealth, power, and territory that have been sown over the long history of European colonialism, and are reinforced by systemic racism.
Canada is no exception to this. Our country has a tragic history of slavery, anti-Indigenous and anti-Black racism, and attempted erasure of Indigenous cultures. Much of our wealth is based on the exploits of land which often was cheated or taken by force from Indigenous nations [16, 17]. We are currently the fourth largest producer and exporter of oil , and the average Canadian’s contribution to the climate crisis is among the world’s greatest . However, unsurprisingly, systemic racism plays a major role in who has benefitted from this wealth versus who is most impacted by the environmental damage.
Many rural Indigenous communities in Canada are disproportionately feeling the effects of climate change. Ice roads, which in the winter enable goods to reach northern communities, become unavailable or unsafe as temperatures rise . Melting ice and extreme weather is cutting Inuit people off from traditional hunting lands, severely threatening people’s physical and mental health . In Eastern Indigenous communities, rising sea levels have negatively impacted traditional medicines and food supplies by increasing the salination of freshwater . In addition to the unintentional impacts from climate change, there are also many situations in which racist planning for polluting sites such as factories, mills, and pipelines have caused environmental harm to rural Indigenous communities. For example, for 53 years the Northern Pulp mill in Nova Scotia treated its effluent in Boat Harbour (A’se’k), a tidal estuary upon which the Pictou Landing First Nation depended for food, livelihoods, and culture. Only this year, after years of community activism, has the provincial government ended the pollution of Boat Harbour, allowing its restoration to begin . These various stresses to rural communities can spur an exodus to urban centers, leading to the loss of languages and cultures that are often deeply connected to the local environment [22, 20].
Systemic racism has also resulted in various environmental disparities for racialized communities in urban areas. The Canadian government warns of the dangers of urban heat islands, areas which amplify warm temperatures due to an excess of paved surfaces and lack of green space . Populations more at risk for heat-related illness include Indigenous people, newcomers to Canada, and poor people . The systemic effects which cause higher poverty rates among racialized people  and a lack of heat-protecting infrastructure in poor neighborhoods combine to make racialized Canadians more vulnerable to rising heat waves. (Because of Canadian astronomy’s connections to the U.S., it is also worth noting that the long-lasting effects of racist redlining in many U.S. cities have resulted in heat islands being centered on predominantly Black neighborhoods there [26, 27].) In addition to heat, pollution is another major health issue in urban centers. Similar to Pictou Landing, there are many cases of polluting sites being built near Indigenous or Black communities in urban areas (e.g. “Chemical Valley”, ON  and Africville, Nova Scotia ). These compounding environmental effects can cause serious health problems in marginalized communities, such as higher cancer rates and respiratory issues [28, 30], increased heat-related illnesses , poisoning from high levels of dangerous materials in water sources (e.g. Grassy Narrows, ON ), and worse pregnancy outcomes faced by Black mothers [U.S. data, 32]1.
The disproportionate effect of the climate crisis on racialized communities is exacerbated by the casual and systemic racism often present in predominantly-white environmental circles and the policies put forth by them. An important example of this is the centrality of the overpopulation argument to many Western approaches to the climate crisis, including in scientific circles . While regularly debunked by public health scholars with the topical expertise in this area [34,35,36], racist origins and implications have been used to advance racist policies in the name of environmental sustainability [37,38]. This interplay has acted to shift the blame from the consumption of the Global North and casts the blame on the Global South, including some of the very populations that are most susceptible to the effects of the climate crisis.
Therefore, although the climate crisis will affect everyone to some extent, it is important that we recognize how global and local histories of racism and colonialism factor into the equation. Those of us with the privilege to be relatively insulated from environmental damage — at least for now — must especially examine our environmental impact and our complicity in systems of oppression. In doing so, it is essential that we learn from the BIPOC leaders who have historically spearheaded the movement for environmental justice like Dr. Robert Bullard and the Rev. Benjamin Chavis  and listen to the young voices, such as Makasá Looking Horse, who are taking the reins ). In our next article, we will examine how Canadian astronomy has benefitted from and continues to partake in white supremacist systems while also contributing to environmental injustice. We will discuss how to change the status quo, considering issues such as respect for Indigenous land rights and frequency of academic flights.
1Canada doesn’t require collection of race-based health data, an issue which has gained awareness during the Covid-19 pandemic (https://globalnews.ca/news/7180914/canada-race-based-data-covid-19/).
The general taboos around studying the effects of race in Canada partially explain why there are fewer available resources on environmental racism here than in the US.
- Rosling, H., Rosling Rönnlund, A. and Rosling, O., 2019. Factfulness. Paris: Flammarion.