Recently it has become more difficult to separate Earth Day events from the awareness of climate change. Traditional Earth Day celebrations and “environmentalism” in general conjure images of vast spaces of protected pristine lands and water, majestic forests, and quintessential North American wildlife species that evoke the feeling of special places and patriotism. Or we see images of polar bears searching for ice sheets or melting sea ice splashing down into oceans. We are reminded of the social tipping points that birthed the environmental movement- rivers that burned with pollutants and cities plagued with smog. We see the “No Planet B” memes. 

When we think about Earth Day, are we also thinking about the far-reaching social justice implications of climate change disasters? Are we thinking about climate justice? 

As expressed by climate hurricanes and flooding, climate fires, and climate drought, the climate crisis reveals the terrifying reality that the poor, the powerless, and the marginalized are the first and the worst impacted by climate change and far less likely to survive and thrive. 

Those who survive climate hurricanes (a total of 4,890 died in Hurricanes Maria and Katrina alone) may become climate refugees migrating to other areas less vulnerable to recurring climate disasters if they have the resources to relocate. Lower economic and underserved communities face a disproportionate hardship from disasters. A panel on improving the disaster recovery for low-income families hosted by the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania found that “costs of natural disasters can be wide-ranging, including not just property damage, but broader negative impacts on economic, social and physical well-being. Disasters can act as tipping points for families and individuals on the edge, pushing the marginally homeless into homelessness, those living paycheck-to-paycheck into debt and financial insecurity, and consuming any small savings that had been accumulated for housing, education or other purposes”. 

Furthermore, according to a March 15, 2021 article published by E&E News, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA,) which distributes disaster relief and recovery programs, is only just beginning to look at their program delivery and agency culture address equity. An independent advisory council to the agency found that FEMA programs tend to unfairly burden low-income and minority populations. “Through the entire disaster cycle,” FEMA’s National Advisory Council wrote in December, “communities that have been underserved stay underserved and thereby suffer needlessly and unjustly.” In short, climate disasters are the death nail to communities trying to rise above poverty.

The traditional white, middle-class environmental movement needs to embrace the tenet of climate justice and reckon with the fact that a place of privilege has afforded overall protection from many of the deep ravages and human tragedy brought on by the climate crisis. Otherwise, we will perpetuate another manifestation of environmental injustice, which will increasingly devastate communities and render the survivors vulnerable to abject poverty and chronic illness. As members of the Chesapeake Bay watershed community, it is unacceptable to ignore the connections, for example, between dangerous heat island effects and historic redlining housing practices or recurrent flooding caused by failing infrastructure in low-income communities.

We have to shift our focus from only the places, pristine or in need of restoration, and look to the profound intersection of people and the environment. Look beyond merely wanting natural places for people to enjoy and into the integral reliance of human health on nature in the midst of a changing planet.  

If movements are described by the advocates that articulate it and the social power they possess, then it is time for those of us in positions of privilege to be more direct about the environmental movement’s role in protecting human quality of life and relentlessly pursue equitable resiliency to climate change.