Climate Justice and Intersectionality
The climate crisis isn’t an issue—it contains all issues. When we write climate stories, it’s important to recognize how this emergency intersects with our other identities and harms everyone differently. This list isn’t comprehensive, but it begins to illustrate the exacerbated vulnerabilities and unique experiences of our human family.
Fossil fuel companies often intentionally choose to build near communities of color, so if you’re Black, you’re 75 percent more likely to live in a fence-line community, meaning next to an oil refinery or petrochemical or other industrial facility, with devastating health impacts. Sixty-eight percent of Black people in the US live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant. The air and water in these communities are more likely to be toxic. In the South, many Black-led grassroots efforts are fighting petrochemical companies operating in their communities, for instance in a stretch of the Mississippi River in Louisiana known as “Cancer Alley.”
More than half of Hispanic and Latinx people in the US live in three increasingly climate-vulnerable states: California, Texas, and Florida. In a recent Pew survey, 71 percent of Latinx participants said the climate crisis is affecting their local communities, and 81 percent said addressing climate change is a top concern. Farm laborers in the US, who are often Latinx and already underpaid, are highly vulnerable to climate change–related shifts in agriculture. And many Central Americans migrating to the US are moving because of severe drought in their region, which has demolished crops, leading to poverty and hunger.
Indigenous people have been leading the way toward regenerative practices through their philosophies and methodologies since long before the modern climate movement began, emphasizing the importance of entering into a reciprocal relationship with nature. For instance, the Seven Generations Principle of the Haudenosaunee people emphasizes that we are responsible for the impacts our actions will have seven generations into the future, and pushes us to learn from the triumphs and mistakes of those seven generations in the past. Indigenous people are keeping fossil fuel companies and our government accountable with movements from LandBack, which advocates for the stewardship and power of land to be put back into Indigenous hands, to the water protectors who valiantly fought the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Sexuality, gender identity, and gender expression
LGBTQ+ people are already vulnerable because of social stigma and the higher likelihood they’ll be rejected by their families, and the climate crisis presents even more threats to their safety. Up to 40 percent of homeless youth in the US identify as LGBTQ+, and in an age where flash floods, blizzards, and wildfires are becoming increasingly common, unhoused people are at a much higher risk for injury or displacement from climate disasters and disparities. In transient situations like evacuation shelters, they may become the target of transphobic and homophobic acts, making climate migration even more dangerous and challenging than it already is.
However, the LGBTQ+ community also brings a huge strength to the climate-crisis table: a history of community organizing across a vast political, economic, and social spectrum, with a very visible track record of success. Queer activists have already begun exhorting the LGBTQ+ community to view the climate crisis as a direct threat to queer rights, drawing parallels between the fight against fossil fuels and the revolutionary Stonewall riots. A number of activist organizations have also started initiatives aimed at combating the climate crisis while elevating LGBTQ+ voices.
Pope Francis called out climate inaction as “a brutal act of injustice against the poor.” Imagine suffering through the heat dome in Seattle with no access to air-conditioning. Or when the Arctic comes for a visit in Texas and you can’t afford heat or to escape to a hotel room—especially when hotels hike up prices to take advantage of the climate threat (a prime example of what best-selling author, filmmaker, and activist Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism”). Imagine still living without aid and resources in Puerto Rico years after Hurricane Maria demolished your street. The climate crisis reveals and magnifies the ways poor and unhoused people get screwed over through the existing inequities in housing and health care. Poorer populations also often receive government aid last, and less of it—which FEMA has been aware of since 2019. Meanwhile, when sea levels rise or a wildfire hits, wealthy communities can build sea walls, relocate, or rebuild.
Globally, the world’s poorest countries have contributed least to greenhouse gas emissions, yet are suffering the most. It’s estimated that climate change could push an additional 132 million into extreme poverty in developing countries by 2030. Climate impacts like drought cause crop failures, exacerbating world hunger rates. Poorer countries also account for the most pollution-related deaths.
For the win, we gotta address economic injustice and climate change at the same time. There are plenty of possibilities, like redistributing the revenue from carbon pricing among the poorest communities, and creating green infrastructure that prioritizes universal access to basic services. But people aren’t just sitting around and waiting for policies to save them: impoverished communities that live in proximity to coal plants and toxic chemical sites are rising up. Activist groups like Philly Thrive and Fenceline Watch have organized locals to fight for clean air and water in the courts and on the streets, and The Good Energy Project (no relation, but we stan) is “connecting the transformational power of Black women to the movement for clean energy.”
As with literally anything that places pressure on society, the climate crisis disproportionately harms women. Women represent 70 percent of the world’s poor and also make up the majority of people who work in food production (50–80 percent)—so when shrinking biodiversity, natural disasters, and limited access to water interferes with farming and food, women are the ones losing their source of income and access to natural resources.
Because women (especially women of color) are often the caregivers of children and the elderly, they are also responsible for more than their own survival in a crisis. Which is one reason why they’re more likely to leave last in a disaster. Care work is also underpaid and undervalued, contributing to the disproportionate share of women living in poverty. And here’s the thing: a worsening climate will only increase the need for care. Women are taking a stand, demanding care-centered infrastructure in the Green New Deal. Care work is climate work.
Women taking on leadership roles is key in the climate fight. In an age of increasing scarcity and instability, women around the world and across cultures are coming forward to apply their skills—the ones they’ve had to develop as caretakers and providers—to combatting the climate crisis. Some shows and films are already reflecting this: climate was a priority for the new prime minister in Danish political drama Borgen, and Wonder Woman fought an oil tycoon. What’s next? Maybe a sitcom about a group of working-class women installing solar panels?
Young people are at the forefront of the climate movement. They’re pissed off and scared about the increasingly unlivable future older generations have passed down to them, and they’re demanding accountability from governments and corporations. A recent Washington Post poll showed one in four teenagers is taking climate action: writing to their elected officials, protesting, or walking out of school. They’re suing their states for leasing land to fossil fuel companies, organizing school strikes, and leveraging social media in new ways.
They’re not just fighting for their future, they’re fighting for now. They’re already suffering. Did you know that young people who grow up near manufacturing plants are more likely to develop asthma? And their mental health is already taking a hit too—a Lancet survey from 2021 found that among youth aged 16 to 25, more than 50 percent feel sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and guilty when contemplating the future.
At the other end of the spectrum, the elderly are more vulnerable to illness and death due to extreme weather caused by the climate crisis. At the same time, elders who have been activists for decades have proven the power of protest. Efforts like the Gray Panthers and Third Act have elders demanding change side by side with young people, bridging the generational divide.
Over one billion people on this planet live with some kind of disability. People with disabilities are everywhere, and their circumstances and experiences come in diverse forms. The climate crisis will affect all of us, but it will impact disabled people even more acutely than most.
In an emergency such as a flood, famine, or fire, people with disabilities are especially vulnerable. Their needs, frequently compounded by other vulnerabilities such as poverty, social stigma, and gender biases, are often not considered or consulted in emergency planning or response. Even COP26 (the latest iteration of the biggest UN climate summit) excluded disabled people by failing to provide accessible transportation for Israeli politician Karine Elharrar, who uses a wheelchair and was prevented from joining the conference.
Even outside of emergencies, the climate crisis hits people with disabilities hardest, in its everyday, insidious ways. People who live in poverty are disproportionately likely to be disabled, which means that a whole lot of disabled people can’t afford to access health care, support networks, or air-conditioning, or to move out of, say, a home built on a floodplain.
But living with a disability—be it a physical disability, a sensory impairment, a long-term mental health issue, or neurodivergence—gives you a unique perspective on the world. Living in a world not built for you, which sidelines and minimizes you as an inconvenience, can cause you to see everything in a different, unique, and more creative light. Greta Thunberg is autistic and views it as a superpower, not a setback, that allows her to see the climate crisis for exactly what it is: people in power not doing anything about it.
Written by neurodivergent producer Josh Cockcroft, cofounder of Well Tempered Productions, a company focused on writers from marginalized backgrounds, and director of Climate Spring, a development fund for scripted content about the climate crisis.
The climate crisis is already hitting many rural areas hard, from prairie fires to fish die-offs to water scarcity. These increasing threats to agricultural livelihoods are often in conservative areas where politicians deny or minimize the crisis, making these folks especially vulnerable.
On the lifestyle level, in rural areas of the US, the distance between things like hospitals and grocery stores, along with a lack of public transportation, means that most people have to rely on cars. And while a 4WD truck may be a status symbol on the LA freeway, it’s an actual necessity for farmland and unpaved roads. All of which means that rural people often have a higher degree of inescapable fossil fuel dependency than their urban cousins.
Meanwhile, in urban areas, population density means that climate disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes, or flash floods can injure and dispossess a lot of people very quickly—for example when buildings are destroyed or exit routes get too crowded. We’ve all witnessed events like this, whether in person or on the news. Those same close-packed buildings also absorb and reflect more solar heat than natural structures, creating “heat islands” that make life-threatening heat waves even more severe.
But! Some good news: many urban and rural areas are already taking creative measures to adapt to the climate emergency and build more resilient systems. In an effort to reduce fuel costs, some farmers have started growing a crop of oilseeds that can be turned into biodiesel and used to power farm equipment. Farmers are also experimenting with raising more drought-resistant crops. And Midwestern crews have built dams in streams as a form of beaver mimicry to combat potential floods, replenish groundwater, and build wetlands.
Meanwhile, a 2021 McKinsey C40 report has compiled a list of climate actions that cities can take, like reducing heat by planting trees and applying “cool treatments” to urban structures, creating nature-based sustainable urban drainage solutions (SUDS) like rain gardens to help with flooding, and restoring natural coastal environments to serve as natural bulwarks against extreme weather. On the community level, growers’ cooperatives in cities are springing up as a way to promote self-sufficient local food systems.
In collaboration with Mariah Gladstone, a Blackfeet environmental scientist who also happens to be a professional culinary instructor and aerialist.