UC Berkeley professor, students discuss inequitable issues of climate change

Photo of Alameda skyline and air pollution
sueegeneris/Creative Commons
Climate change disproportionately impacts marginalized groups, including BIPOC and low-income communities. The environmental injustices these communities face can be found in factors such as city planning, working conditions and insulation. (Photo by Sueegeneris under Pixabay License)

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As climate change causes temperatures to fluctuate, ocean levels to creep higher and wildfires to appear more frequently, its impact can be felt all around the world. However, not everyone suffers equally.

Black, Indigenous and people of color, or BIPOC, and low-income populations disproportionately bear the issues born from climate change, according to Michael Mascarenhas, UC Berkeley associate professor in the department of environmental science, policy and management.

This long history of discrimination and injustices faced by these communities often leaves them in neighborhoods and situations where they are more exposed to harmful environmental conditions.

“The less money and the less capital and the less resources you have, the less equipped you are to handle climate change,” said Sarah Naameh, a member of Students of Color Environmental Collective, or SCEC. “The most horrible part is that (marginalized communities) are playing such a little part in this global natural disaster and yet … are being the most affected by it.”

Mascarenhas noted how environmental injustice can be seen in the built environment with factors such as insulation and air conditioning. Marginalized communities disproportionately suffer from rising temperatures, as many do not have adequate housing, experience respiratory problems from badly ventilated houses and develop health issues from poor work conditions.

BIPOC and low-income communities also tend to experience environmental injustice through discrimination in city planning. High-pollution areas such as warehouses, rail locations and highways tend to cluster near these communities’ neighborhoods and cause respiratory issues for residents, according to Naameh.

“It’s just really important to realize how big the issue is and how important it is to work towards justice in our movements,” said SCEC member Jed Lee.

In Berkeley, one of the most urgent environmental injustice issues is affordable housing, according to Mascarenhas. Those without quality, safe housing often lack a stable foundation, community support and health care.

SCEC, a campus student group, aims to provide a healing space for students of color and advocate for environmental justice in Berkeley, according to Lee. Some of its initiatives include providing mentorship programs and environmental conferences for students who are BIPOC, in addition to diversity inclusion training for educators to create safer, inclusionary classroom environments.

“Just providing spaces for students of color to talk about these issues is kind of the forefront of what we’re doing and what we have done,” Lee said.

One of the biggest issues SCEC addressed at UC Berkeley was the lack of diversity in the Rausser College of Natural Resources, or CNR, faculty. In 2017, SCEC started a #EnvironmentalismSoWhite campaign and sent a letter to the CNR calling for more diversity and inclusion in the predominantly white faculty.

The 2017 CNR faculty consisted of 59.55% white men and 26% white women, according to the CNR’s equity benchmarks report. The 2019 faculty had less white men but still consisted of 54.55% white men and 25% white women, according to the report.

“(We got) a lot of narratives out there about how (students of color) had felt excluded from the environmental field,” Naameh said. “We’re trying to do activism, and we’re trying to do healing at the same time.”

Lee stressed the importance of acknowledging the Indigenous perspective in environmental justice. Considering that stolen Indigenous lands was one of the first environmental justice issues, Lee said people must consider Indigenous sovereignty and Indigenous livelihood and support the #LandBack movement to return land to Indigenous people.

Naameh further underscored the intersectionality of environmental justice. She said it is “all encompassing” since it includes fields such as racial, food and social justice, and she encourages people to connect their passion with an aspect of environmental justice.

“We need to listen to folks who are experiencing (environmental injustice) in their everyday, lived experiences,” Mascarenhas said. “It’s going to take some reflection, but we really need to think about how to build a political economy around care and not profit.”

Contact Cindy Liu at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @_CindyLiu_.