While many of us are anxiously aware of the climate-related threats looming over our heads, we can only see through our limited perspectives. This means we’re not always conscious that different groups of people are profoundly and unjustly affected by climate disasters, pollution, and other environmental issues. The climate crisis affects all groups unequally. It is vital for the health of the planet and the people that we understand the term intersectional environmentalism.
What is intersectional environmentalism?
The Term “Intersectional”
Civil rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectional in 1989. It referred to the fact that feminism did not reach circumstances beyond that of an able-bodied, middle-class, white, heterosexual, cis-gender person. Crenshaw addressed that women come from different classes, abilities, and ethnicities with different genders and sexualities. She expressed that all of these characteristics intersect with people’s access to privilege and exposure to misfortune.
Since then, intersectionality hosts a broader definition that highlights how characteristics of a person’s social class and political identities overlap to result in specific examples of discrimination and privilege. In our society, a person’s race, class, gender, sexuality, physical abilities and appearances, and religion all affect an individual’s circumstances thoroughly unequally.
The Term “Intersectional Environmentalism”
Intersectional environmentalism is a concept that combines intersectionality with climate crisis issues. It represents how unequally marginalized groups are affected by various climate issues. Coined and defined by black climate activist Leah Thomas in 2020, intersectional environmentalism advocates for both social and environmental justice. Leah stated the following to define this term.
“Intersectional Environmentalism is an inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for both the protection of people and the planet. It identifies the ways in which injustices happening to marginalized communities and the earth are interconnected. It brings injustices done to the most vulnerable communities, and the earth, to the forefront and does not minimize or silence social inequality. Intersectional environmentalism advocates for justice for people and the planet.”
6 Ways the Climate Crisis Can Affect Marginalized Groups
Understanding how environmental issues affect different groups of people in intersecting ways can help pave the road to a more equitable and sustainable future. Let’s explore six common ways marginalized groups and identities are affected by the climate crisis.
The intersection between environmental impacts and race is so significant that the term environmental racism was coined by black civil rights leader Benjamin Chavis in 1982. Environmental racism includes discrimination within government and policies, sanctioning of pollutants and toxic waste within communities, exclusion of BIPOC groups within leadership, and other forms of systemic racism integrated throughout history.
Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC communities) in North America fought for many years to protect the land, air, water, species, and cultural connections from discriminatory forces that instilled harmful policies and environmental injustices. Many environmental injustices that have occurred throughout history and today sneak by covertly. For example, many BIPOC communities are forced to live near environmentally degraded areas that host fracking sites, waste incinerators, pipelines, landfills, and coal plants. Living in these conditions causes disproportionately high rates of illnesses and health problems like cancer and respiratory issues.
Wealthy and middle-class communities commonly create zoning, redlining, and planning restrictions that disallow hazardous environmental obstructions like landfills and pipelines from landing near their homes. Consequently, these developments are placed in impoverished areas where people live with very little money, time, freedom, and influence to combat this injustice.
People who live with pre-existing conditions and disabilities are more vulnerable to environmental impacts like pollution and climate disasters. For example, someone with a mobility disorder is more susceptible to the danger of a natural disaster that forces climate migration. Additionally, certain groups with pre-existing conditions are more at risk when air pollution invades their living space. Those living with limiting disabilities are consistently disadvantaged socially, economically, and politically, making them more endangered when climate disasters strike.
Environmental catastrophes cause extra strife for immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants. From scarcity of job opportunities to real estate redlining to lack of healthcare access, immigrants are disproportionately affected by disasters like wildfires, pollution, hurricanes, and droughts.
Sexual orientation is another way individuals experience unequal consequences due to climate change. Sexual minorities lack access to healthcare, resources, and other adaptation methods. For example, this group of people might not have a way to stay informed about climate change because they are isolated from society or restricted from joining certain groups and opportunities. Additionally, many individuals unaccepted by a portion of society rely on volatile work in laborious roles that expose them to hazards.
Many same-sex couples, non-binary individuals, and other sexual minorities do not have access to government relief programs and emergency efforts. Furthermore, many people within this marginalized group fear being chastised or harmed, so they do not feel safe coming forward and asking for help.
Gender inequality means that women, transgender people, and other gender minorities are more susceptible to the negative impacts caused by climate change. Many of these people depend on natural resources for sexual health treatment, income, and familial roles. Gender-based violence like young marriage, sexual assault, sex trafficking, and unjust traditions are all factors experienced during unprecedented times of crisis and scarcity. Furthermore, climate catastrophes increase people’s fear and stifle available resources, limiting access to sexual and reproductive health services.
How Marginalized Groups are Deeply Affected by Climate Issues
Now, take the examples we have provided and intertwine them. Imagine a day in the life of a low-income, black transgender woman with an autoimmune disorder. The intersectionality of environmental impacts and disadvantaged groups is remarkably complex. To illustrate the severity of how misrepresented communities are affected by climate disasters and issues, we’ve collected several real-life examples. Let’s explore the statistics that reflect how marginalized groups receive the brunt of environmental impacts.
Black and Non-Black People of Color
Communities of color in the United States are 38% more likely to breathe in asthma-inducing pollutants caused by industrial and chemical plant operations, vehicle emissions, coal plants, and construction equipment.
The 2010 BP oil spill caused by the explosion of an underwater oil well in the Gulf of Mexico leaked 94-184 million gallons of oil. BP hired contractors to clean up the colossal mess along 120 miles of the polluted Gulf coastline and dump it into landfills in Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida black communities.
Indigenous communities – like the Saami in Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia and the Guarani in Brazil – are deeply affected by climate change due to their reliance on natural resources. With warmer temperatures and melting glaciers in the Arctic, traditional food sources are becoming scarcer for the Saami. Additionally, deforestation in the Amazon is triggering droughts that negatively impact the Guarani peoples’ access to clean water.
Stolen lands and murdered and missing Indigenous people are epidemics in North America. 710 Indigenous people, mostly girls, have gone missing in Wyoming from 2011 to 2020. Statistics show that 84% of American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime, and they experience murder rates that are three times greater than these rates of non-Hispanic white women.
As temperatures rise, climate change forces displacement within vulnerable communities. In 2021, 84 million people were displaced worldwide due to climate-related disasters like hurricanes, flooding, droughts, wildfires, and violence due to scarcity and chaos.
In November 2020, Hurricanes Eta and Iota devastated Central America with flash floods, landslides, heavy winds, and torrential rains. Of the 7.5 million people affected, 1.5 million were displaced, fleeing toward the U.S. border to seek safety.
By 2050, an estimated 200 million people will be climate refugees. WHO states that 15% of the world's population lives with a physical or intellectual disability. This means that 30 million climate refugees will need special types of support.
Over half of the deaths that occurred during Hurricane Katrina were people over 75, even though this age group represented less than 6% of the local population. Most of these people had disabilities and medical conditions that prevented them from receiving proper support and evacuating.
During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, many transgender, gay, lesbian, and bisexual people experienced discrimination and were turned away from emergency shelters.
1 in 5 LGBTQ people in the United States lives in poverty, while 40% of homelessness is composed of LGBTQ youth. Climate change continues to displace more and more of this group of people.
In sub-Saharan Africa, women are disproportionately affected by climate change because of the roles they play in fetching water, cooking, heating, and collecting resources. Many poor farming women in Africa and other poverty-stricken countries depend on natural resources, which continue to deplete as the climate crisis progresses. As women search for resources during times of disaster, increased gender-based violence threatens their safety.
Climate change results in poor maternal health and a lack of access to sexual and reporductive services and rights. Reproductive services are among the first services to be cut during times of emergencies. For example, during Cyclone Eloise in Mozambique, more than 20,000 women did not have access to contraceptives. Additionally, Hurricanes Eta and Iota left 180,000 women without access to family planning services.
Social and Environmental Justice for the People and the Planet
To become more deeply involved in the battle against the climate crisis, stay educated and informed by environmental justice heroes that inspire you. You can also work to elevate the voices of marginalized groups, donate to environmental justice organizations, volunteer during climate disasters, and have important conversations with your local leaders and representatives. Intersectional environmentalism is a crucial piece of the climate movement. All climate warriors have a role in keeping vulnerable communities at the forefront of our climate efforts.