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Environmental Racism and the 15th Anniversary of Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence and the Common Good (Cristina Richie)

The status of the environment remains a crucial concern of theological ethics. With the recent 15-year anniversary of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence and the Common Good on June 15, a fresh look at its teachings and implications is only “prudent.” Catholic social teaching must continually be evaluated in light of Scripture, experience, conscience, and a hearty dose of moral reflection. The teachings from Climate Change have been presented here at Political Theology Today as both a continuation of previous teachings on the environment and as the basis for further elaboration on those ideas. Despite all the good work that has been done on Climate Change, its emphasis on environmental racism remains largely overlooked. A decade and half after the USCCB gave both evidence for and a theological corrective to this pernicious aspect of the environmental problem, there is still much that needs to be said.

The concept of environmental racism originated in the United States during the mid-1980s. At that time, the Protestant denomination the United Church of Christ (UCC) undertook a commission on racial justice, which led to the publication of the 1987 report Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States: A National Report on the Racial and Socio-Economic Characteristics of Communities with Hazardous Waste Sites. This report was one of the first theological reflections on environmental racism. A follow up report was produced twenty years later. These two documents found that environmental menaces such as toxic waste sites, municipal dumping grounds, and hazardous waste facilities are clustered in low-income areas where racial and ethnic minorities dwell. Of course, these environmental hazards are necessary evils, and their presence alone is an insufficient condition to claim “environmental racism.” Rather, environmental racism is characterized by: 1) Exploitation of those who are poor to the exclusion of the rich, and 2) The intention to pollute or focus environmental degradation on low-income areas. Although the UCC’s report focused on toxic waste, environmental racism understood in this way can be linked to a number of environmental dangers, including climate change.

The poor are exploited because they lack the financial resources to move when they are affected by pollution or anthropogenic climate change. In Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God, Elizabeth Johnson vividly describes this trap: “The economically well-off can choose to live amid acres of green while poor people are housed near factories, refineries, or waste-processing plants that heavily pollute the environment… the bitterness of this situation is exacerbated by racial prejudice, as environmental racism pressures people of color to dwell in these neighborhoods” (187). Although this statement makes reference to the developed world, it is applicable in the developing world as well.

The Bishops note in Climate Change, “Projected sea level rises could impact low-lying coastal areas in densely populated nations of the developing world. Storms are most likely to strain the fragile housing infrastructure of the poorest nations.” The prognosis is grim. The USCCB continues, “Whatever the extent, severity, or geographical distribution of global warming impacts, the problem is expected to disproportionately affect the poor, the vulnerable, and generations yet unborn.”

The poor are also intentionally inflicted with decisions to put environmental hazards in their backyards since they generally lack the political resources to mobilize a constituency to vote or lobby against policies that affect their health. In The Principle of Mercy: Taking the Crucified People from the Cross, Jon Sobrino records a proposal by former World Bank economist Lawrence Summers to put toxic waste in places where poor people live because they “don’t live long enough to feel the effects” (192 n. 7). Environmental racism is a form of violence. Womanist theologian Emilie Townes, in her In a Blaze of Glory: Womanist Spirituality as Social Witness, describes it as a “contemporary version of lynching a whole people” (55), part and parcel of the history of colonialism and slavery.

Christians are called to address environmental racism, rather than remaining complacent. In Climate Change, the USCCB offers the virtue of justice as an appropriate response to this challenge. For example, they write, “Action to mitigate global climate change must be built upon a foundation of social and economic justice.” The USCCB’s approach to this issue is supported by other documents in the canon of Catholic social teaching.

 In his 1987 encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, for example, Pope John Paul II noted that “the direct or indirect result of industrialization is, ever more frequently, the pollution of the environment with serious consequences for the health of the population” (34). Justice embodies a mean of temperance by not using more resources than needed.

Both John Paul II’s encyclical and the USCCB’s Climate Change propose an anthropocentric vision of justice as a response to environmental racism, where the needs and dignity of human beings are prioritized. While the degradation of the environment might be the occasion of injustice, it is the human beings involved who have a claim to justice.

But ecological justice can also be approached from a biocentric viewpoint where the environment is considered to have value for its own sake. This would be a consistent development of the Aristotelian/Thomistic virtue tradition that appeals to human rationality and its ability to participate in an ordered system, encompassing the entire cosmos. In this tradition, it might make sense to assert that the natural world has its own claims to justice intertwined with those of the poor.

Pope Francis makes just this sort of appeal in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’, where he claims that there is an “inseparable the bond between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace” (10). He proposes a seamless garment, a truly pro-life (bios) agenda that names and denounces both racism and environmental exploitation in all of their forms.

Environmental racism is present whenever the poor disproportionately feel the negative effects of an economic system that emits massive amounts of carbon and pollutes the environment, while benefiting the least from that system. It denies the disenfranchised a true place in the politics of democratic dialogue. Victims of environmental racism are subjected to an insidious and obfuscated form of prejudice, which denigrates human dignity.

Fifteen years after Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence and the Common Good numerous exposés, natural disasters, and initiatives have made ever clearer the realities of environmental racism. The USCCB poignantly states, “In facing climate change, what we already know requires a response.” The perennial question put forth to people of good will today is, “How will we respond?”

Cristina Richie (PhD, Boston College) is a Clinical Ethics Fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles Health Ethics Center and was previously a professor of Health Care Ethics, Christian Ethics, and World Religions for six years at various institutions in the Boston area. Richie has published over two-dozen peer-reviewed articles and is currently working on her first book, Green Bioethics: Moving Environmental Bioethics into the 21st Century, which advocates sustainability in the medical industry. In 2013 she won the Catholic Health Association (CHA) Annual Theology and Ethics Colloquium essay contest for her paper on the same topic.

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