Increasing worldwide temperatures, longer droughts, more intense storms, rising sea levels, heightened wildfires—as the environmental impacts of climate change continue to display themselves in our world, the pressure to act is imminent. Our planet is taking a direct hit and so are we. It can be easy to view the climate crisis solely as an environmental issue, but this perspective is limited and it simplifies the complexities of the problem. As Audre Lorde writes in her essay, Lessons from the 60s, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”
Climate change is an environmental issue and a social justice issue, disproportionately impacting marginalized communities—and that acknowledgment is crucial in our understanding of the climate crisis and how to respond.
What is Intersectional Environmentalism?
Let’s start with defining intersectionality. Coined by professor and activist Kimberlé Crenshaw in an academic paper written in the late 80s, intersectionality is a theoretical framework that acknowledges the interconnectedness of multiple aspects of social categorization, such as sex, race, religion, education, class, etc. Intersectionality explains how these different aspects of our identity overlap to shape our world experience, and how the combination of these layers can create societal privilege and discrimination.
As Crenshaw explains in a TED talk on the urgency of intersectionality, many of our social problems are often overlapping, creating many levels of social justice. Intersectionality enables us to view social problems from a complete framework, rather than a partial one—a crucial perspective in problem-solving on a societal level.
So how does environmentalism play into this? Historically, environmentalism has looked like concern and action aimed towards protecting the environment. When approaching environmentalist work from this angle, the focus is on the natural world as affected by humans. This is a narrow lens and covers a piece of the problem, but not all of it. Intersectional environmentalism takes the natural world into account, in addition to the various experiences of the people living within it: approaching environmentalist work from a place of concern directed towards the natural world and its people. Simply put, intersectional environmentalism advocates for justice for the planet and for the people. When we step into this framework, we can see the ways in which climate change is a social justice issue, disproportionately impacting marginalized communities.
It’s a Social Justice Issue
As Adriana Laurent describes in her Ted Talk, the environmental effects of climate change accentuate existing stressors in marginalized communities. Laurent describes the devastating effects of Hurricane Mitch on her home country of Honduras in 1998. In a nation where 60% of the country lives below the poverty line and the biggest national industry is agriculture, the impact of the hurricane on Honduras was horrendous, destroying 50 years of the country’s economic growth in the span of three days. Through Laurent’s personal anecdote, we see the clear intersectionality of the issue: the increased intensity of natural disasters and rising sea levels—direct results of climate change—perpetuate pre-existing conditions of inequality.
Laurent’s story is shared by thousands of people across the world living in marginalized communities. As this graphic breaks it down, marginalized communities are disproportionately affected by climate change, facing threats to livelihood security, forced displacement as floods, droughts and sea levels increase, and increased prevalence of malnutrition due to rising temperatures and the decrease of staple food production, among many other effects. There’s so much more content supporting the evidence of this (and a few resources I’ve suggested at the bottom of the page), and I encourage you to delve into more research if this is a new topic for you.
Ultimately, the connection is clear: climate change is a social justice issue. As activists Audrey and Mara write in their Crash Course to Intersectional Environmentalism, “you cannot separate people from the environment.”
So, where do we go from here?
Without frames that allow us to see how social problems impact all the members of a targeted group, many will fall through the cracks of our movements, left to suffer in virtual isolation. -Kimberlé Crenshaw
Educate, educate, educate. In order to tackle social problems from an inclusive perspective that takes multiple experiences into account, we must prioritize educating ourselves on intersectionality and privilege and how they unfold within our lives. The more privilege we have, the more power we hold within our society. Recognizing this power and using it to highlight and strengthen the voices of folks who are being disproportionately affected by environmental injustice is one way to affect change.
Another way: intentionally consume content from a diverse array of perspectives that differ from your own. Be open to all perspectives, and listen with open ears. A society-wide problem needs input from all sides before a viable solution can be formed.
Prioritize civic engagement, and mobilize to keep local and national politicians accountable for better environmental policy. And if you hold privilege, create space for those who haven’t had a seat at the table, and pass the mike to them. Let’s hold each other accountable and lift each other up to inflict holistic, lasting change.
For more resources on Environmental Intersectionality, look here:
About the Author
Rachel Veale is an Instructor for the North Carolina Outward Bound School. With a degree in Electronic Media and Communication from Texas Tech University, Rachel thrives at the intersection of content creation and outdoor spaces. Her go-to road trip snack is black coffee and donut holes. When she isn’t on course, you can find her running down a trail in western NC or chasing golden hour with a camera in hand.
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