Climate Change, Racism, Patriarchy, and Policy: Climate Justice, Explained


When people talk about the pressing need for climate policy to address the systemic problems of racism, poverty, and sexism, it can make the tall order of climate action feel even further out of reach, tasking us with solving the great big problem of reducing emissions while also somehow solving the even bigger problems of oppression. 

The language is bold, and often misrepresented, but the logic is simple. First, that policies which ignore systemic inequities cause harm to vulnerable communities, and second, that these social problems stem from the same root cause as the climate problem: an extractive economy that requires profits take precedence over people. So climate and justice can’t be separated if the problem is to be fully solved. 

As the Biden administration’s climate and infrastructure related policy conversations at federal, state and local levels take shape, the debate pitting climate policies with and without a justice component can sometimes be overplayed in the media for dramatic effect or exaggerated for political effect by those opposed to any and all climate action. Fortunately, in practice a technocratic focus and a socially conscious approach to climate policy are not actually in conflict at all, but instead often complementary. 

But why are calls for climate policy being accompanied by a call for justice? There are many answers, depending on who you ask, so this explainer will attempt to summarize some of the vast socio-historical context that forms the premise of demands that climate policies incorporate social justice, with a focus on racial justice and sexism. 

Historic Responsibility: Exploitation to Extraction

The connection between climate change and social justice issues begins hundreds of years ago, when colonial countries adopted an economic system of extraction: removing value from its environment, exporting it for use mainly by the elite of “western” (white) economies, and discarding it when finished. This system built upon the preceding mercantile and agricultural economies that produced goods for the western elites first through feudal practices that dispossessed local white populations throughout Europe and later by eliminating the commons in a drive that created a landless class providing cheap labor for factories owned by the elites. This approach was the opposite of the approaches employed by the indigenous populations who were colonized. As their living counterparts can often attest, indigenous peoples, by nature of thriving for hundreds if not thousands of years in particular environments, tended to employ methods of ecosystem management that are necessary to ensure the long-term availability of those shared resources. 

The colonial approach became dominant with the European invasions into Asia, Africa, and the Americas, seeking and extracting mineral wealth like gold and silver, or cultural goods like spices and silks, as well as stealing the land itself from indigenous peoples. With that sum of wealth attained, and inroads and infrastructure into Africa built as part of the pursuit of trading routes and religious conversions, they then financed the transatlantic slave trade, again extracting value – but this time in the form of human beings as slaves – to fuel economic activity in a system reliant upon “cheap” labor, while those at the top reap the rewards. 

The people with access to monetary resources and political power (almost entirely wealthy white men from Europe and the U.S.) built their wealth through forced free labor, indentured servitude of poor whites, and resource exploitation from land belonging to communities of color, be it within the U.S. or around the world. They built ships to exploit the natural resources others owned, used them to grow wealthy by shipping Asia’s resources to Europe, and then used the spoils of colonialism to build a slave trade to provide the labor to work their stolen land in the America, with slavery as a central component of economic growth. 

Importantly, they also intentionally crafted public policy to keep those communities in extreme poverty and social conflict as a way to prevent them from building the resources necessary to secure their freedom. Similarly they dispossessed poor whites and created racial divisions to divide the common interests of poor whites and communities of color. Colonizers implemented policies that bankrupted nations and caused famines. Examples include forcing farmers in Asia to grow and buy opium in a system that left farmers impoverished and users addicted and dead, creation of artificial borders in Africa and the Middle East drawn explicitly to stoke conflict to make stealing, drilling and exporting oil easie, while also enlisting soldiers from these countries to fight their wars. 

With God, Guns, Gold and the Glory of White Supremacy, colonists forced their lifestyle on others under the guise of “civilizing” them, forcing exploited populations to serve them. (And the “unholy alliance” of fossil fuels and the religious right is still quite strong.)

While white colonizers profited off of this abuse and extraction, the communities they profited off of were left with massive cultural, economic and legal deficiencies that are still exploited. It is hard to express the economic disadvantage of the large-scale kidnapping of entire populations that fed the transatlantic slave trade, or the long-term ramifications of the wealth extracted from the Americas and shipped to white European empires. 

In parallel, wealthy white elites built a system of extraction and production in the United States fueled by the dispossession of workers of all colors.

That is part of the socio-economic context in which fossil fuels were developed, and the pattern upon which it was built. Wealth and power extracted value from the Earth, in the form of oil, coal, gas, timber and people, to fuel a system where massive amounts of energy generated massive profits for those who own the land or businesses and their shareholders. 

Until the mid-20th century, the only people legally allowed or socially permitted to own property or operate businesses, and thus allowed in the upper echelon of society where wealth is concentrated, were (at least outwardly straight, predominantly Christian) white men. In the early years poor whites were often disenfranchised by laws restricting voting rights to those who owned property. For the first 200 or so years of the 270 years we have been burning fossil fuels, from 1750 to 1950, it was exceedingly rare, if not impossible, for women or people of color to financially benefit directly from the profits associated with selling and burning of fossil fuels. And even since then, things have only barely improved.

Researchers have traced 71% of emissions back to the top 100 fossil fuel companies like Exxon, BP and Chevron. These companies have historically been controlled almost exclusively by wealthy white men — the first female CEO of a major US Oil Company got the job in 2015, and it wasn’t until 2010 that a black-owned energy company was listed on the New York Stock Exchange. 

These were the men who decided to fund massive denial campaigns instead of admitting their product causes climate change, which disproportionately impacts communities of color and developing nations. 

But now, evidence compiled by BNEF shows that companies with a board of at least 30% women (a low bar only 16% of the 11,700 energy companies cleared) tend to produce better Environmental and Sustainable Governance results. 

What’s Past Is Present: The Patriarchy And Fossil Fuels

The concept of “petro-masculinity” describes the heteronormative cultural connotations that fossil fuels carry, putting a fine point on the expansive issue of gender and climate justice. Thanks in part to a concerted effort by the industry’s front groups through the ‘80s and ‘90s, burning fossil fuels has been wrapped up in some formulations of masculinity, leading to silly things like “truck nuts” and rolling-coal, as well as a more serious belief that environmentalism is feminine (despite the fact that most climate guests on broadcast TV are still white men). 

The harmful effects of the fossil-fueled patriarchy can also be seen in the misogynistic reactions to women, girls, trans-gender and non-comforming people speaking out about climate change. While all climate scientists and advocates receive some level of blowback from the organized denial network and its denizens, women in politics like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or protesters like Greta Thunberg and U.S.-based youth activists bear the brunt of particularly heinous and gendered attacks. (Summarized by the Koch-funded Daily Caller’s publication of fake nude pictures of Ocasio-Cortez.) As bad as the constant online harassment is, there are also much more serious consequences to the intertwining of masculinity and fossil fuels.  

Women and gender-nonconforming people are an important part of the climate community, and unfortunately face a greater threat from extreme weather, and are 14 times more likely to die in extreme events, while only 20 percent of the people displaced by climate change are men. 

Additionally, the LGBTQ+ community is particularly at risk during extreme weather events, as their poverty rates are exceptionally high, as is the proportion of the community that is without stable housing. In addition, the fact that public shelters can be hostile to those who don’t adhere to patriarchal gender and sex roles leaves them particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events. This is only made worse by prominent religious figures seeking to blame the LGBTQ+ community for natural disasters, so the churches in which many find solace or shelter during an emergency are not necessarily an appealing, or even safe, refuge from the storm for everyone.  

While it is difficult to measure exactly how the LGBTQ+ community is impacted, some injustices are more quantifiable. Sadly, Black women were particularly hard hit by Hurricane Katrina, facing safety issues due to housing shortages that led to an increase in storm-related sexual abuse and reported rapes

Merely being close to fossil fuel extraction can even have negative consequences for pregnancies. A 2016 study found that many of the chemicals in fracking fluids are harmful to the human reproductive system, and a study published the following year found that babies born near fracking sites are more likely to be underweight than other babies, exacerbating existing injustices in maternal healthcare facing Black mothers

There are also additional gendered impacts of fossil fuels. The fracking boom has been associated with increases in STIs, and in some places has created “man camps,” where the predominantly male oil-workers or pipeline construction crews live in temporary housing and cause sex trafficking rates to rise. This has worsened the already-tragic and often unaddressed crisis of rape and murder among indigenous women

The prevalance of sex trafficking, rape and murder of indigenous women encapsulates much of what activists’ calls for climate justice are seeking to address. If clean energy is deployed, for example, by also utilizing mostly male labor in remote areas where the dominant white American culture has concentrated the indigenous peoples from whom all this land was stolen, these problems would persist, providing an example of why climate policy needs to incorporate social justice from the start. This would not only repeat injustices, but would also be strongly opposed by the very coalition of people who are most concerned about climate change, making enemies out of the the demographics vital to securing a political landscape conducive to climate policy that reflects the size and scope of the climate crisis. 

The climate crisis is largely a “western” creation. The United States is the largest historic emitter globally since 1750 (nearly double China’s cumulative emissions) and other white European nations are, combined, a leading source of carbon dioxide. The bulk of excess CO2 in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution was generated by countries where wealthy white men controlled political, economic, and social systems at the exclusion of all others. The United States’ per capita emissions remain the highest in the world. 

But now that it has come time to clean up that waste, where are those responsible? Again, the extractive capitalist economic system cares primarily about short-term value, so just like the coal companies that dissolve to escape clean-up costs, or the oil spilled and “dispersed” in the Gulf of Mexico by BP or any of the many recurring leaks on Keystone and other pipelines, the general public is left to endure the consequences and clean up their mess. 

Who is that general public, though? 

Current Reality: Disproportionate Burdens

The fact that geosciences remain whiter than they should be and that communities of color and low-income communities face more pollution is not a coincidence, or an accident. It is the direct, if at times unintended, consequence of white supremacy and racist public policies. 

A textbook example is redlining, when in 1935 the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, the federal government’s New Deal vehicle for funding housing and mortgages, created maps to designate areas of high to low risk for real estate investments. Affluent white-only neighborhoods were rated highly, while communities with Black and Hispanic populations were consistently ranked the lowest. These maps were then used for decades to justify the denial of mortgages and other financing for communities of color.  

The impacts of this decision continue to reverberate, as these policies were ended but the problems it created have not been solved. For example, people who live in formerly redlined areas are now twice as likely to have to go to the emergency room for an asthma attack as a result of the increased levels of air pollution in those communities. Another study found that because of a lack of investment in green spaces and other development features, formerly redlined areas are now significantly hotter (7°C/12.6°F) than nearby non-redlined neighborhoods, exposing these underserved (and often under-air-conditioned) communities to a significantly greater threat from extreme heat. And across the Northeast, communities of color experience as much as 66% more pollution from vehicles, likely the result of development practices that chose to protect white neighborhoods by putting major thoroughfares in minority communities. 

As a result, when industry looked (and still looks) for places to site hazardous facilities, land prices in marginalized communities were always the lowest, due to the deliberate lack of government support. Therefore they chose low-income neighborhoods of color, knowing that not only was the price the cheapest but also that residents were those who were least empowered to oppose it. And, of course, these communities could be paid less to do those jobs than people would in communities with more access to other economic opportunities- if they actually hired locals, which they rarely do

The types of housing that grew, and continue to thrive, in different areas are similarly shaped by redlining. While rich, mostly white suburbs enjoy mortgage-backed investments in single-family houses with spacious lawns, those who were denied access to that financial support were left to rent in urban multi-family units. 

Again, this development was not an accident. It was a direct result of “white flight,” where racism sent white people out of increasingly multicultural cities and into the suburbs, something that is ongoing. And because those white people were allowed political power denied to others, public investments followed. The result is the suburban development model, which requires vastly more fossil fuel use than a walkable city to fuel cars required for commuting, provide upkeep for lawns, heat and cool single-family housing units, et cetera. 

When it comes to the extreme weather impacts of climate change, redlined development also continues to shape city planner perceptions of which areas should be most protected from natural disasters, and which might need to be sacrificed. Because of the depressed economic conditions in redlined communities, economic rationale, instead of racial, could be used as a pretense (or honest explanation) for protecting the most valuable (and whitest) communities, while leaving low-income and communities of color as “sacrifice zones.” 

In addition to the intersection of gender and extreme weather discussed above, ableism and ageism also shape how society does, and should, handle emergency management. Those who require refrigeration for medication, for example, or those with mobility issues, are at particular risk during power outages and evacuation events. Policies that center their safety, for example by providing solar panels and batteries for when the grid goes down, or ensuring shelters are easily accessible, also provide a greater deal of protection for the general public, who also benefit from those additional precautions.  

But disenfranchised groups continue to experience marginalization during recent climate impacts. For example, Black and Hispanic people are getting pushed out of their neighborhoods in Miami as real estate agents start moving inland, an example of climate gentrification. In the wake of hurricanes, like Katrina, white communities receive more assistance more quickly, while the generally less affluent communities of color receive less support in a less timely manner, if at all. More recently, a study found that Puerto Rico received less federal disaster aid than Florida and Texas, despite the far greater impact from Hurricane Maria than the other two states saw from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. 

Time and again, these examples show how a system of oppression repeatedly benefited certain people (white and affluent) while excluding all others. The result is a world where those who did the least to cause climate change are hurt the most by its impacts, while the mostly white and mostly male industrial polluters who bear the most responsibility for the problem continue to reap the greatest profits and be protected from the worst impacts. 

For more, the legacy of Robert Moses is one of racist development processes, something New York City is trying but still largely failing to address. 

A Fairer Future: Why Climate Action Needs a Climate Justice Component

Advocates argue that policies that seek to address the climate crisis need to take this history into account. If not, then it will likely exacerbate pre-existing inequities. 

For example, if adaptation policy is solely based on economic factors, previously redlined communities will be disregarded while those which historically benefited from the full suite of government benefits will again reap a greater share of the available resources. The effect will leave communities of color to suffer as white neighborhoods get bailed out. Or in the case of Houston, in neighborhoods that are increasingly diverse, white residents are particularly eager to take buy-outs to avoid repeated flooding, meaning public money is funding a 21st century white flight.  

Consider homeowners who have the resources to make upfront investments in energy efficiency upgrades, or install solar panels on their home. These options tend to favor affluent homeowners, and not those who rent their homes, particularly communities of color, due to their inability to secure financing in the wake of redlining. By taking justice concerns into account, energy programs can be both equitable and more effective in reducing emissions. 

The community solar approach that Groundswell uses offers a great example of how this works in action. Other efforts to build decentralized power grids, where everyone has their own solar panels that feed into a collective grid, are similarly empowering for these communities. Instead of electricity being generated at a coal- or gas-fired power plant owned by a single entity, it would come from the general public, taking power, literally, out of the hands of the wealthy and giving it to the public.

There are many other examples of how taking social issues into account improves environmental policies. For example, fire control efforts that allow indigenous knowledge to guide policy and improve management of the forests in ways that don’t also open up protected areas to the logging industry. 

Then there are efforts to stop gentrification through development practices to address how climate impacts are changing real estate values, driving communities of color into more-and-more dangerous, or expensive areas. Addressing both the local pollution and transportation’s greenhouse emissions are dual benefits of racially-sensitive transit programs that reduce the need for driving, and programs to address urban heat island’s disproportionate impact on communities of color can begin to address the historic damage of redlining.

And in general, incorporating social justice concerns makes for a better policy-making process as it provides an avenue for incorporating feedback from those who will be most impacted by climate change, ensuring the solutions don’t have unforeseen consequences on the people they are intended to help. 

By addressing past and present inequities, climate policy can be a vehicle for justice. Ignoring those injustices risks perpetuating them or worse, wasting time with policies that fail to fully address the root causes of climate change, and therefore are more likely to fail.

For our explainer on the argument for a more technocratic approach to climate policy, see here.