Why Climate Change is a Justice Issue: View from Virginia

By Emily Liu, Research & Policy Intern at Climate Cabinet Action

June 2, 2021

You may have noticed the racial justice movement and climate movement alike are pointing out the need to address climate change and social justice hand-in-hand. Here’s why.

Race and poverty often go hand in hand with the disproportionate burden of environmental hazards. More power plants, highways, sources of air pollution and toxic waste are placed in marginalized communities than anywhere else. As a result, communities of color are exposed to poor air quality and subject to public health risks, while also having the least resources to deal with climate change and its effects. The movement for environmental justice seeks to address this injustice of environmental racism, by fighting for fair and equitable distribution of environmental benefits and burdens.

The disproportionate location of polluting infrastructure in communities of color is directly tied to systemic racism and poverty. Redlined neighborhoods, which are usually low-income with a large black or brown populations, are targeted for industrial polluting projects and sidelined in the decision-making process. Redlined neighborhoods are also disproportionately subject to fewer green spaces, urban heat islands, and are underserved by public transportation, all of which impacts public health.

Burdening communities of color with polluting infrastructure isn’t limited to the urban scope; in rural areas, minority communities are also disproportionately subject to environmental and health hazards. Virginia currently plans to build the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which will run through many poor, rural and predominantly minority communities. For instance, the Lambert Compressor Station, one of four proposed stations to pump natural gas through the pipeline, will be located in Chatham, which is also home to a majority black and brown community and an existing Transco Compressor Station. Environmental justice highlights the intersection of systemic racism and poverty with climate change. We need to address racial justice and climate together.

What can we do? The fight for climate justice and environmental justice will be long and fraught, but as engaged citizens, we have power – and there are policies that can help fight systemic racism and fight the climate crisis together. Policies advancing clean energy and clean transportation are a good start, and these policies can prioritize clean energy investments and pollution remediation in communities of color. For example, states including Washington and California have set aside money to directly invest in low-income communities through clean transportation programs and necessary electric vehicle charging infrastructure. In terms of driving investment to marginalized communities, Virginia has begun to take steps in the right direction with House Bill 981, which dedicates revenue from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative cap-and-trade program to supporting energy efficiency programs in low-income neighborhoods. This will help lower people’s energy bills in addition to cutting emissions — but we still have a long way to go. Investing in clean energy, particularly among vulnerable communities, can create more good-paying jobs, increase the local tax base, lower energy costs, and improve air quality and public health. It’s a win-win.

We can’t separate environmental issues from social and economic justice issues. Climate change and polluting infrastructure are disproportionately harming marginalized communities, and the clean energy transition is an opportunity to begin addressing a legacy of injustice. We all need to educate ourselves, our communities, and our elected leaders about the connections between systemic racism and environmental justice.