ADVOCACY MEMO – Environmental Justice

“There is a vicious cycle: initial inequality causes disadvantaged and marginalized groups to face greater suffering from the adverse effects of climate change, resulting in greater subsequent inequality.”

Advocates for the unhoused have emphasized since the start of Covid-19 that people experiencing homelessness cannot shelter in place; that sheltering in place, in all it’s novelty, difficulty, anxiety, and uncertainty, is a privilege for those who have a safe and secure home. This has now become just as prevalent when we think about extreme heat and the wildfires cropping up across California, both of which are now regular yearly phenomena that will only worsen as a result of climate change.

Additionally, as with almost all phenomena and systems in America, environmental injustice exacerbates and is partially caused by pre-existing social, racial, and economic inequalities. Those who have experienced environmental racism and social and racial inequities are disproportionately overburdened by the consequences of climate change and the impacts of COVID-19.

The inequitable impacts of climate change will play out on a global scale:

  • It will increase the exposure of disadvantaged groups to the adverse effects of climate change
  • It will increase groups’ susceptibility to damage from climate change
  • It will decrease peoples’ ability to cope and recover from the damage suffered, especially in poorer nations 

In the United States, Covid has highlighted how the greater likelihood of communities of color to live in densely occupied and multigenerational households and to work as front-line, essential workers combined with heightened exposure to air and water pollution, lack of healthcare, higher rates of poverty, and other forces of systemic racism all lead to the alarming and devastating rates of Covid-19 infection and death among communities of color.

Urban Heat Island Effect

Large urban areas can experience higher temperatures, greater pollution and more negative health impacts during hot summer months when compared to more rural communities. This phenomenon is known as an urban heat island.

Heat islands are created by a combination of factors: 

  • Surfaces that are especially prone to absorbing heat, such as dark pavement and roofing
  • Heat-generating activities, such as engines and generators
  • The absence of vegetation which can provide natural cooling

All such factors are amplified in the Tenderloin. The Tenderloin serves as a major artery for traffic to and from downtown San Francisco. As such, it is full of cars and concrete, impermeable pavement, and lacks urban green space.

Those most susceptible to heat include pregnant women, young children, the elderly, people with certain pre-existing conditions such as diabetes or heart disease, and people who work, or live, outdoors.

Major increases in deaths, hospitalizations, and emergency room visits have been documented to occur during heat waves. Furthermore, even during a non-heat-wave period, there are clearly documented associations between increased temperatures and a range of health problems that are only magnified among more vulnerable populations who, especially in the time of Covid, may lack access to healthcare and/or other basic services.

Green Space

Access to green space is another aspect of environmental inequality: communities of color and low-income communities are less likely to have green space, green infrastructure, and access to parks in their neighborhoods.

Race, class, and education are highly correlated with access to green space and parks. Access to green space is not merely about aesthetics and appreciation of nature. It influences health and well-being:

Air Pollution

The concentration of heat in urban areas creates health risks both because of heat exposure and because of the enhanced formation of air pollutants like Ozone. Air pollution remains one of the greatest determinants of general health in urbanized areas.

As aforementioned, communities of color disproportionately bear the costs of air pollution and its impacts on their health in the form of pollution-related strokes, heart attacks, and various forms of cancer. 

In fact, researchers have now made connections between exposure to harmful toxins and air pollution and higher death rates from Covid-19, another disease that has disproportionately impacted communities of color across the U.S.

Furthermore, residential segregation based on race and class has been shown to influence the distribution of environmental amenities (such as parks and green space), disamenities (i.e. pollutive incinerators, factories, and power plants), and Covid-19 infections and death.

Environmental Racism in San Francisco

Hunters Point is a textbook case of environmental injustice. The Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood in San Francisco is host to the City’s largest Black population as well as its the highest percentage of people living in poverty. From 1946 to 1969, the U.S. Navy used the Hunters Point shipyard to decontaminate ships and military equipment exposed to atomic bomb testing and to study the effects of radiation on animals and materials. The shipyard shut down in 1974, leading to an economic collapse for the working-class communities of color in the neighborhood.

It has been the site of industrial lots, open-air storage for industrial pollutants, a power-plant that sent toxic pollutants into the surrounding air until 2006, and metal and ship-repair companies that polluted the Bay and the surrounding land with hazardous industrial wastes.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared the area a federal Superfund waste site in 1989, meaning it is one of the most contaminated places in the country given its radioactivity, heavy metals pollution, and other toxins. The Navy was charged with cleaning up the site and continued to claim to the public and the surrounding residents that water from the tap was safe to drink.

It has since been documented that Navy tests spanning back to 1993 concluded that the drinking water was contaminated with significant levels of lead and copper.

Residents suffer from elevated rates of asthma, heart disease, and cancer, all of which can be traced to or correlated with higher particulate matter and environmental toxins. The state ranks Bayview-Hunters Point as one the most pollution-affected and at-risk communities in the state.

These are historical realities and ongoing processes that have resulted from decisions and system-designs over decades. Perpetuated by decades of racism, classism, and segregation, the Bayview-Hunters Point community was made particularly vulnerable to the environmental injustices manifest in the construction of the shipyard, other industrial factories, and one of San Francisco’s major freeways, and to continual neglect and failure to clean up pollution and provide a health environment.

Remediation of environmental injustice is an ecological and racial project. A sustainable city will not only lower, end, and prevent such toxic pollution, but it will comprehensively and compassionately uproot racial and socioeconomic inequalities that disproportionately burden communities of color in the City in every regard, from housing to education to poverty to clean air and water.

Environmental Reading & Watch List

  • A Sand County Almanac – Aldo Leopold
  • The Hidden Life of Trees – Peter Wohlleben
  • The Uninhabitable Earth – David Wallace-Wells
  • Parable of the Sower – Octavia Butler
  • Standing with Standing Rock: Voices from the #NoDAPL Movement – Edited by Nick Estes & Jaskiran Dhillon
  • Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future – Mary Robinson
  • Planet Earth (I and II) – Netflix
  • Our Planet – Netflix
  • Night on Earth – Netflix