Thursday, August 13, 2020
Where Black Lives Matter and Climate Change Collide
Wood River Valley residents turned out at Black Lives Matters protests in Ketchum, Hailey and Bellevue.
Monday, July 13, 2020

COMMENTARY BY SCOTT LEWIS, Wood River Climate Action Coalition     


 Editor’s NOTE: This is a guest commentary by the Wood River Valley Climate Action Coalition exploring how climate change is connected to the issues of our time, and what we can do about it.

“What,” one may reasonably ask, “could the pressing social justice issues surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement possibly have to do with Climate Change?” 

As it turns out, two of our most urgent societal problems--the persistent oppression of people of color, indigenous communities and the economically disenfranchised, and humanity’s blind rush towards global climate catastrophe – are so intertwined that policy makers and community activists cannot meaningfully address one without solving the other.

Let’s take a look at why, and what this means.

When we hear in the news stories about George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, or the countless examples of policing gone awry dating back to Rodney King and throughout our nation’s history, the obvious conclusion is that racism in the United States still plagues even the institutions that are supposed to protect our communities and the people within them.

 What we don’t hear, and don’t often think about, is how the way society treats minority and disadvantaged communities connects to bigger, seemly remote issues like climate change.  But, as John Muir aptly observed in 1922, “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

 The relationship of how environmental harms, of which climate change is but one example, impact poor and politically disenfranchised groups, first gained attention during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, in a then-emerging and now growing community of scholars and activists known as the environmental justice movement.  Observers noted and pointed out that poor communities--often black, Hispanic, blue collar white, and native peoples--historically have borne, and continue to bear, disproportionate impacts of both pollution and ecological disasters. 

A study published in 2001 by the University of California found, for example, that “poor people account for more than 20 percent of the human health impacts from industrial toxic air releases, compared to 12.9 percent of the population nationwide.“  Caroline Farrell, Executive Director of the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, which fights in the courts for those communities impacted by environmental harms, explains, “Communities of color are more likely to live at the fence line of factories, refineries, and power plants.”  As such, she notes, “they are more likely to face the direct impacts of pollution from those facilities.” 

With climate change specifically, a 2017 paper published by the United Nations concluded that in the event of climate change-related impacts, “disadvantaged groups suffer disproportionate loss of their income and assets, resulting in greater subsequent inequality.”  The authors note that “inequality exerts the disproportionate effects through increased exposure of disadvantaged groups to climate hazards, increased susceptibility to damage caused by climate hazards, and decreased ability to cope with and recover from the damage.”

Triple whammy.

Caroline Farrell observes, “communities of color are more likely to be displaced by wildfires, hurricanes, floods, sea level rise, and drought--the varied impacts of climate change.  Environmental justice advocates often talk about climate change as having a multiplier effect that exacerbates existing disparities.  It is more than a fight against climate change--it is a fight for climate justice.”

Climate justice--a subset of environmental justice, a subset of social justice.  To Muir’s point--it’s all connected.  In fact, on June 25 of this year, the New York Times ran a story entitled Climate Change Tied to Pregnancy Risks, Affecting Black Mother Most.  Referring to a new study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, the article concludes “the research adds to a growing body of evidence that minorities bear a disproportionate share of danger from pollution and global warming.”

The study, which examined the outcomes of 32 million births in the United States, found high temperatures tied to climate change resulted in lower birth weights and increased premature births from 8.6 percent to 21 percent in the target populations, along with racial disparities in the numbers of stillbirths.  Bruce Bekker, a retired gynecologist and one of the authors of the June report, succinctly observed in the Times article, “Black moms matter.” 

Effect and Cause, Problem and Solutions

While environmental harms in general, and climate change in particular, have been shown to disproportionately impact communities of color and the poor, it is important to understand how the cause side of the equation also connects economic disparities with these environmental harms.  In late June of 2020, the State of Minnesota sued Exxon Mobil for what it called  "a campaign of deception" about climate change that the companies "orchestrated and executed with disturbing success,” as reported on NPR.

According to the lawsuit, company documents dating back to the 1970’s showed clearly that Exxon knew at the time fossil fuel use caused climate change, and deliberately produced propaganda denying that connect, with public statements that included "Who told you the Earth was warming? Chicken Little?" and "The most serious problem with catastrophic global warming is that it may not be true."

In other words, the same set of economic rules that has left behind communities of color and vast segments of the entire population--median black household income was 61% of median white household income in 2018, according to Pew Research, a non-profit think tank--also enabled the deliberate acceleration of climate change.  

The idea of connecting economic inequality with addressing climate change has also been around for decades.  Twenty years ago, black leaders and activists such as Van Jones advocated for the Green Jobs Act to create jobs in communities of color that were specifically tied to protecting the environment. That includes jobs like home weatherization and installing solar power.

The law was enacted in 2007 and during the Obama Administration resulted in $500 million in national funding for green jobs training.  Similarly, the Green New Deal, introduced to the U.S. Congress and Senate in 2019, calls on the federal government to quickly reduce the use of climate changing fossil in the United States while creating new high-paying jobs in clean energy industries.

Ultimately, addressing climate change, addressing the social justice issues around the Black Lives Matter movement, and addressing gaps in wealth and income in our economy cannot be done separately. They are so inextricably intertwined they must all be taken on at once.


 Join a local Climate Action Coalition (Hailey or North Valley)

Support the Sun Valley Institute

Support The Alliance of Idaho (devoted to addressing social justice issues state-wide).


Support any of the many national groups working on climate change (NRDC,

Support the Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment

 Scott Lewis is a co-founder of the North Valley Climate Action Coalition, a board member of the Sun Valley Institute and a member of the Ketchum Sustainability Advisory Committee.  He is also the founder and former CEO of Brightworks Sustainability .



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