How climate disaster impacts oppressed peoples

The following excerpts are from a statement the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network prepared for its summit meeting in Whitakers, N.C., on Oct. 16-17, 2015. To read the entire statement, visit

Humans are responsible for the greenhouse gases that come from fossil fuels used in transportation, agriculture, industry and power generation, as well as carbon and methane from deforestation, livestock production and solid waste disposal.  

Underdeveloped communities exposed to racial and class exploitation will be more impacted by climate change than wealthy communities. This makes climate change an environmental justice issue. The injustice of disproportionate impact is magnified by the fact that people with fewer material resources are less responsible for producing greenhouse gases than wealthy people.

The climate change movement is composed mostly of privileged people who didn’t object to fossil fuels as long as they were not directly impacted. They didn’t step in to protect people living next to refineries, pipelines and chemical plants; they didn’t fight for workers exposed daily to injuries, disabling dusts, carcinogens, and periodically to catastrophic and fatal accidents, refinery explosions, coal mine collapses. Now that fossil fuels threaten everybody, a segment of the privileged classes realizes that we have to do something. This movement is important; however, it will not succeed if it only involves people of privilege. Major change comes from the bottom up, more than from the top down.  

In the case of reducing greenhouse gases, change requires fundamental restructuring of the global economy and abandonment of production of fossil fuels that are currently counted as part of the assets of global energy companies.

The North Carolina Environmental Justice Network was created to help communities experiencing injustice to transform power relationships and to support their self-determination. Our base communities face immediate threats of polluted homes, lack of basic amenities that the government provides to others, exploitative working conditions, lack of access to services and racist treatment in housing, education and policing.  

Although these communities will be disproportionately impacted by climate change over generations, we need to address the everyday concerns that people face right now. Slowing greenhouse emissions cannot occur without a mass movement, and it must be a movement that puts justice first.  

We are not fighting for a new order that reduces greenhouse emissions but leaves other injustices in place.  

Crimes of the corporate-government alliance extend far beyond greenhouse emissions and climate change. Climate change is a symptom of global capitalism, just like fever is a symptom of infection. Treating climate change as the fundamental issue is like practicing medicine in the era before germs were identified as the causes of infection. Because fossil fuel is the lifeblood of the global economy, the climate justice movement must engage with the infection — capitalism — and not just the fever, climate change. Treating the symptoms will not prevent disaster. To treat the infection we have to build a movement that is inclusive, which requires putting racial and economic justice and self-determination first. Our job is to bring this environmental justice perspective to our allies and the communities we serve.

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