Climate Crisis, Income Inequality, and Social Justice

Posted by Richard Beach, May 17, 2019, Revised by Allen Webb May 23.

The climate emergency is deeply related to issues of economic inequality and questions of social justice.  The rich have far larger “carbon footprints” and can use their wealth, at least in the short run, to protect themselves from climate breakdown impacts. Wealth distribution has become dramatically more unequal in recent years in the United States. The Walton family, inheritors of the Walmart fortune, own more wealth than 40% of all other Americans combined (Sanders, 2018). That’s more than 130 million Americans!

Inequality is skyrocketing even within the Forbes 400 list of America’s richest. In today’s dollars, the net worth of the richest member of the Forbes 400 has soared from $5 billion in 1982 to $160 billion in 2018 (

Inequality of wealth is a climate crisis issue: higher-income people produce far more emissions from transportation and housing. The world’s richest 1% produces 50% of greenhouse gas emissions, and the bottom 50% of the world’s population produces only 10%, creating a system that Oxfam calls “extreme carbon inequality.”

This concentration of wealth has also meant that the wealthy, including the Koch Brothers, contribute to politicians who foster deregulation efforts, oppose carbon fees, or dis the Green New Deal. For example, when the citizens of Nashville were about to approve a referendum supporting building a mass-transit system to help lower-income people access their jobs, the Koch Brothers funded a massive opposition campaign that resulted in the referendum being defeated (Tabuchi, 2018).

Environmental health is also tied to inequality. Power plants generating air pollution are more likely to be located near lower-income family neighborhoods/schools resulting higher asthma rates for children, lung damage, cancers, and premature deaths.

Global heating further increases economic inequality.  The poorest are the first to be devastated. A United States geographic example: heat and droughts in the South and Midwest will shift wealth to the cooler, and richer, areas of the country, the Northeast, Northwest, and Great Lakes region (Climate One at the Commonwealth Club: Winners and Losers podcast and Economist Magazine).

In an interview Dr. Robert Bullard (aka:“the father of environmental justice”) argues that climate change/green groups need to address the effects of pollution on poorer neighborhoods/schools (Nexus Media, 2018):

The best and the most potent predictor of health and well-being in all of our cities across the country is a ZIP code. You tell me your ZIP code, and I can tell you how healthy [you] are…. If we neglect the least powerful and the most vulnerable, we run the risk of making it worse for everybody. We saw that in Hurricane Katrina when we didn’t take care of the levees in the lowest-income communities. That’s obvious to many communities on the ground who are facing the ravages of climate right now. For them, it’s not a debate. It’s not theory. It’s real. For workers who work outside, they know it’s getting hotter. They know it’s more difficult to work outside, and they know that if it’s too hot to work, or if it’s raining every day, they can’t do their job, and they’re losing money…We have to really be forward thinking in terms of how we’re going to build and grow our progressive movement to deal with these issues that we’re talking about — housing, energy, transportation, food security, health. We have to converge these issues. Climate change and energy and civil rights and environmental justice —it’s all wrapped together.” (interview)

Addressing Climate Emergency and Inequality in the ELA Classroom

ELA students can develop research and argumentation skills around issues of climate justice. They can research the adverse effects of the climate crisis on lower-income/poor people (see video on Environmental Inequality produced by War on the Future). A report by the World Bank indicates that unless there is marked action by 2030 to reduce emissions, given the adverse effects of global heating, 100 million more people will be living in poverty (Barrón-López, 2019).

Students can investigate how the climate emergency impacts connect to disparities in income in their own communities. For example, they can use the National Institute of Health TOXMAP to identify emissions levels of power plants in their community and the E.P.A.’s mapping tool, EJScreen to connect emissions levels from these plants with adverse health effects associated with poverty and race. Based on this data, they can then write statements for their local city/town councils on the need to address this issue.

One example of the intersection between wealth disparities and climate crisis is evident in what Richard Florida (2018) describes as “climate gentrification,” in cities impacted by sea rise. In these cities, properties at higher elevations become more valuable while properties at lower elevations, susceptible to flooding, become less valuable. Lower income homeowners, many of whom do not have flood insurance or cannot afford to move elsewhere, suffer the most devastating climate impacts.

Students can also examine how economic inequality effects efforts to address the climate breakdown. Lower income people are not able to afford to retrofit their homes or purchase solar panels or newer, more fuel-efficient cars, so that requires more energy. They may also not be able to afford homes near where they work. This means that they must drive further distances, and when carbon is taxed, as it must be, efforts must be made to insure that burden doesn’t fall on the least able. (Boiling Points: The Inextricable Links Between Inequality and Climate Change, by Susan Holmberg (see also Cimons’ (2017) summary))

ELA students can also use imaginative literature to better understand climate justice. Nearly all climate change “cli-fi” and post-apocalyptic literature portray dramatic class differences. A good example of such literature is the YA novel Ship Breaker by Paulo Bacigalupi. This popular, fast paced, and teachable novel contrasts the existence of Nailer, a teenage boy struggling to live by dismantling fossil fuel fired ships no longer in use, with Nita, a rich girl who Nailer rescues from a magnificent shipwrecked sail powered trading ship owned by her father. As students look at class differences portrayed in literature, they can ask questions such as “How does the climate crisis impact differently the lives of rich and poor? Which social classes bear the greater responsibility for climate breakdown? Whose interests does the government serve? What is climate justice?”

All of the utopian and dystopian literature we teach to English students create openings for students themselves to imagine both the dire and unequal impacts of the climate emergency, and better, healther, and more just futures.

Image result for climate justice mary robinsonELA students can watch video and read articles, autobiographies, and testimonies of those on the front lines of the climate crisis.  Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Better Future, by Mary Robinson (2018) tells stories about people from frontline communities who become leaders trying to address it.

ELA students can invite people from their own communities to speak about climate crises. The small Midwestern city in Michigan, Allen Webb lives in, like so many other American communities, has already seen dramatic climate breakdown impacts:

  • Substantial flooding – which most impacted poorer neighborhoods;
  • Record setting cold, “polar vortices” – hardest on people in poorly insulated homes;
  • Incoming displaced people from devastating storms in other states including Florida, Louisiana, and Texas;
  • Climate refugees arriving from Syria, Central America, North Africa, and other regions devastated by drought.

Survivors, representatives of any of these events or groups — many likely among fellow students in many American public schools — could be interviewed by students, invited to speak in ELA classes. ELA students could undertake “Foxfire” type projects to tell their stories, and help make climate emergency and questions of climate justice come alive.As our students need to understand the unequal impacts of climate disaster and environmental devastation, they also need to focus on what to do about it.  The Green New Deal is a key starting point.

The Green New Deal Resolution makes climate justice central to addressing the climate crisis.  The proposal makes clear that:

climate change, pollution, and environmental destruction have exacerbated systemic racial, regional, social, environmental, and economic injustices (referred to in this preamble as “systemic injustices”) by disproportionately affecting indigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth (referred to in this preamble as “frontline and vulnerable communities”).  Green New Deal Resolution

And it demands that environmental policy:

promote justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of indigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth. Green New Deal Resolution

Image result for green new dealThe Green New Deal emphasizes government support/tax rebates for solar panels, windmills, and transmission lines to create clean, renewable energy. Students could examine the counter-arguments to these proposals and develop their own arguments based on issues of economic inequality and social justice.

Justice, fairness, and impacts on and perspectives of frontline and vulnerable communities, these are just the sort of questions that English language arts classes should be addressing at this moment in history as the climate crisis deepens.

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