At UUFR, fighting climate change also means fighting racism

By Jim Yocom, Environmental Justice Ministry Team

In 2021 the Environmental Justice Ministry Team along with congregational leaders will review UUFR’s designation as an official UUA “Green Sanctuary.” This process will identify new ways that UUFR can address climate change and engage members in this critical work. 

Environmental stewardship is a core principle of Unitarian-Universalism and deserves our congregation’s focus and support, independent of other considerations. But the prospect of devastating climate effects on the health and wealth of people of color invokes many other UU principles as well. Increasingly, environmental justice is a critical front in the battle against racism.

Photo of UUFR’s sanctuary by Amy Howerton

What Is “Environmental Racism”?

Environmental racism refers to administrative rulemaking, legislation, or policies that negatively and disproportionately affect people of color (including Native Americans), particularly with respect to health and housing. 

Some environmental racism results from expressly race-motivated policies, such as redlining and factory location. However, environmental racism often results from “race-blind” policies. For example, when a hydroelectric dam project floods land that happens to be owned by Native Americans, or tax incentives entice a factory to relocate near affordable land, which happens to be primarily inhabited by people of color. In North Carolina, people of color are disproportionately affected by water contamination from hog waste, lead, and coal ash. The U.S. Department of Energy website suggests that the environmental justice movement got its initial “spark” in 1982 in North Carolina after a Warren County protest in which a “predominantly African-American community was designated to host a waste landfill.” Though some policies can benefit those communities, perhaps by providing employment, cheaper power, or a stronger tax base, people of color rarely benefit in proportion to the risks to health and wealth they incur.

Racial segregation, municipal underbounding, and the devastation of Native American territory have made people of color vulnerable to climate change. As climate change accelerates, hurricanes and rising sea levels, flooding, and droughts will substantially burden people of color. Many marginalized people will likely eventually be forced from their homes, possibly resulting in wide-scale population dislocation and wealth destruction. In addition to housing destruction, flooding will exacerbate water-quality and mold-related health problems

What Can We Do?

Pressuring politicians and agencies to develop better policies is essential for confronting environmental racism. For example, in 2019 and 2020, UUFR’s EJMT accelerated its letter-writing efforts regarding HFC refrigerants, which are an important contributor to climate change.  However, political pressure is not sufficient. Too often, those with the most to lose from climate change have the least ability to affect political decision making. 

Many researchers assert that, though technology and policy will be important for addressing climate change, consumers must change their behavior. UUFR is proud to have taken numerous, concrete steps in this direction in 2019 and 2020, including hosting Wellspring events on climate-change and climate-change mitigation, becoming a supporter of and donor to the Interfaith Creation Care of the Triangle (ICCT), the installation of a new solar array, and implementing a new composting program. Such concrete changes are scientifically recommended for making a dent in current climate change projections. And efforts like these help UUFR fulfill its mission not only to be good stewards of the environment, but also confront racism.

Get Involved

The EJMT meets monthly, usually before Sunday service. We’d love to have your help as we roll up our sleeves and make a difference. To learn more about what UUFR is doing and to learn about how you can get involved, please contact Russ Outcalt at [email protected] 

Further Information

Check out the ICCT’s terrific lecture on environmental racism by Dr. Ryan Emmanuel of NCSU.

Singer, M. (2018). Climate Change and Social Inequality: The Health and Social Costs of Global Warming. Routledge.

Nardone, A. et al. (2020). “Associations between historical residential redlining and current age-adjusted rates of emergency department visits due to asthma across eight cities in California: An ecological study.” The Lancet Planetary Health, 4(1), e24–e31. (“Historically redlined census tracts have significantly higher rates of emergency department visits due to asthma.”) 

Schell, C. J., et al. (2020). “The ecological and evolutionary consequences of systemic racism in urban environments.” Science, 369(6510) (“[S]ystematic racist practices such as residential segregation . . . have led to [inequalities] that continue to play out in both the ecological processes of cities and the welfare of their residents.”)

Kunkel, K.E. et al. (2020). North Carolina Climate Science Report. North Carolina Institute for Climate Studies (“[H]eavy rains from hurricanes and other weather systems will become more frequent and more intense,” “sea-level rise will lead to increased flooding that will disrupt coastal and low-lying communities,” “hurricanes will be wetter and likely to be more intense,” and “severe droughts will become more intense.”).

Merdjanoff, A. A., & Piltch-Loeb, R. (2021). Hurricanes and Health: Vulnerability in an Age of Climate Change. In Climate Change and Global Public Health. Humana, Cham.

Azuma, K., Ikeda, K., Kagi, N., Yanagi, U., Hasegawa, K., & Osawa, H. (2014). “Effects of water-damaged homes after flooding: health status of the residents and the environmental risk factors.” International Journal of Environmental Health Research, 24(2), 158175.

Mirabelli, M. C., & Richardson, D. B. (2005). “Heat-related fatalities in North Carolina.” American Journal of Public Health, 95(4), 635637.