Justice at the Heart of Climate Activism
The modern environmental justice movement understands the health of the planet and well-being of people are connected.
What comes to mind when hearing the word “environment?” A vast stretch of old-growth forest? A secluded mountain waterfall? Perhaps one of the 423 national parks of which the United States is so proud?
The trouble with these visions of the environment—and the traditional environmentalism that so earnestly strives to protect them—is that the environment is made up of so much more.
Awe-inspiring trees, yes, but also the branching underground networks of fungi they use to share nutrients and communicate. Instagram-worthy animals, yes, but also scores of microscopic organisms that coevolved to support them in the soil, the water, and their own guts. The environment includes the air, the land, the flora, the fauna, and yes, people, along with everything that comes into contact with them—our cars, our construction projects, and our trash. Indigenous communities and ancient cultures have always known this. And in contrast with earlier iterations of environmentalism, the environmental justice movement of today focuses on a similarly holistic understanding of what constitutes the environment.
“The environment is not a place that is somehow separate from ourselves. It’s not some faraway place in nature where you travel to to get away from home,” says Vivian Huang, incoming co-director of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network. “The environment is home. It is our workplace. It is the schools that we’re in. It’s our relationships to one another. It’s our communities. It’s us.”
Kiana Kazemi, the head of community operations at Intersectional Environmentalist, a nonprofit founded in 2020, defines modern environmentalism succinctly: “Understanding the interconnectedness of people and the planet.”
Looking at environmentalism through this lens, it’s no wonder that today’s movements take an active role in defining and fighting for environmental justice, rather than solely serving as preservers of natural splendor. This intersectional environmentalism considers advancing housing access, racial justice, and gender equity to be as essential to the movement as protecting clean water and air. In the past five years alone, new climate activism organizations like the Sunrise Movement, Zero Hour, Extinction Rebellion, and Fridays for Future, many of them founded and led by youth, have brought environmental justice into the mainstream.
Huang is quick to point out that “this idea and way of thinking about environment is not new.” She says, “the environmental justice movement really came together around this idea of an environment being very much rooted in people and in communities.”
This organizing approach goes back decades and includes the preeminent research and campaigning in the 1980s against environmental racism by Robert Bullard, considered the “father of environmental justice.” The Asian Pacific Environmental Network, where Huang has worked for the past 11 years, came out of the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991. This seminal event in the environmental justice movement codified the 17 principles that have guided grassroots groups over the following three decades.
Many environmental justice groups still hold true to these principles today, and new organizations and coalitions are making new commitments to these concepts. The Climate Justice Alliance, for example, continues to grow and expand principles of environmental justice in the context of a just transition. And these aren’t fringe efforts; the Sunrise Movement and Zero Hour have become forces to be reckoned with in recent years, mobilizing young voters and influencing politicians to push for a Green New Deal and insist that Democrats prioritize climate justice in the federal budget reconciliation package. While these provisions haven’t passed, youth organizers have certainly moved the needle on what’s included in the political agenda.
Intersectionality on the Rise
Countless climate and environmental movements of the 2020s hold these overlapping issues of justice at the heart of their organizing and activism work. As Nadia Nazar, founder and art director of Zero Hour, explains, systems of oppression don’t just shape who is affected by the climate crisis. They are the causes of the climate crisis in the first place. “The people that hold the power in these systems that have been exploiting the land, people, wildlife [for generations],” she says, “not only have these systems caused what’s going on, but they are causing the continuation of it.” So to work toward meaningful solutions, Nazar and her contemporaries argue the systemic issues of colonialism, capitalism, racism, and patriarchy must be addressed in concert.
Take pipelines, for example. “We can’t talk about them without talking about missing, murdered Indigenous women, [who] constantly are going missing due to the building of these pipelines,” says Alexis Saenz, the founder of the Los Angeles chapter of the International Indigenous Youth Council.
With the oil boom in the Bakken region of Montana and North Dakota, for example, the industry established “man camps” for new workers to move into rural areas, including the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. This coincided with a 70% increase in aggravated assaults on the reservation, whereas crime rates decreased in counties outside of the oil region. This is part of a much larger pattern of oil industry-related sexual violence against Indigenous women across the U.S and Canada. Data on these crimes is sparse, which exacerbates the problem of their invisibilization, but the best available statistics show that American Indian and Alaska Native women are more than twice as likely to experience sexual assault or rape than other races. The majority of these crimes are committed by non-Native perpetrators, but tribes generally aren’t allowed to prosecute non-Natives, even on reservations. Federal, state, and tribal jurisdiction is hugely complex and varies by the type of crime and location, effectively resulting in impunity for many perpetrators on tribal lands.
Saenz says the racism inherent in the stealing and sex trafficking of Indigenous women, children, and two spirit people is clear: The people building these pipelines are denying Indigenous sovereignty by taking over Indigenous lands—and bodies.
That’s why the council’s activism goes beyond the confines of what “environmentalism” has traditionally entailed. The organization not only works toward the divestment of pipelines, but also defends and advocates for Indigenous sovereignty by organizing youth to become leaders, build solidarity, and take direct action.
Since the establishment of the International Indigenous Youth Council at Standing Rock in 2016, the group has formed chapters in many states, including New Mexico, Minnesota, and Texas. And the group’s work isn’t limited to fossil fuel sites; it also targets injustices that occur in places like universities and on public lands. That’s partly because even the lands that have been set aside for preservation, like those beloved national parks, were never pristine to begin with. Defining these “wilderness” areas as being “untrammeled by man” erases the millennia of Indigenous land management that shaped them. It also fails to recognize that the establishment of these “untouched” wilderness areas was the product of colonization and genocide. Which is one reason why groups like the youth council are trying to reclaim the stewardship of these sacred lands.
“Everything is related. I am related to the trees, to the oceans, to any other living being, regardless of race, class, gender,” Saenz says, so “one of the things that we say as youth is that we are the land defending itself.”
Overcoming the ongoing, overlapping injustices against Indigenous communities will require divesting from pipelines, yes, but Saenz says it’s also about centering different forms of power and leadership, like those of Indigenous and front-line communities.
Broad but Not Diluted
Some may argue that expanding the scope of environmentalism to include all these intersecting topics makes it unwieldy or too big to solve. But many climate activists don’t see it that way.
The Asian Pacific Environmental Network is member-based, and Huang says that the lives of its members—like the lives of all people—are impacted by many intersecting issues. Members don’t just care about the air pollution impacting their health; they also care about economic opportunities, access to livelihoods, and addressing the racial injustice that they see, like the anti-Asian hate that spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s why Huang says the group’s agenda aims to get at the heart of what people really need.
“When people are talking about siloed issues, they may not think of housing as, quote-unquote, an environmental issue,” Huang says, but “it’s very much an environmental issue.” From an environmental justice perspective, supporting people’s ability to stay in their homes without fear of eviction, gentrification, unaffordable energy bills, or unsafe living conditions demonstrates the many ways that racial justice, economic justice, and climate justice intersect.
The network’s housing policy strategy is multipronged. In 2016, the nonprofit pushed to pass a ballot measure for rent control in Richmond, California—the first nationwide in more than 30 years. Today, the organization continues to advocate for massive investment in statewide solar power, insisting that renewable energy be accessible to low-income communities, renters, and front-line community members.
At the end of the day, Huang says true climate justice will come from affirming the rights of political, economic, and cultural self-determination for all peoples.
Intersectional Environmentalist, too, works to foster community, though it’s a much broader, global community, primarily built online during the pandemic. To address the inequity in access to environmental education that especially impacts low-income people of color, the nonprofit launched “IE School.” The organization’s leaders invite nontraditional educators, who may be students or organizers or activists, to share the wisdom gained from their experience.
“We amplify their voices and put them in those positions of teaching, when usually they don’t have that opportunity,” Kazemi says. “We’re creating free, accessible educational resources that come from the voices of the people at the front lines.”
In this way, Intersectional Environmentalist is hoping to expand the movement to include not just self-identified environmentalists, but also housing advocates, food sovereignty activists, engineers, doctors, artists—anyone who cares about people and the planet. “I think those people are all environmentalists, whether they identify as that or not,” Kazemi says. “We all belong in this movement.”
While the environments, needs, and communities will vary, at its core, environmental justice is about safety, Huang says. “And real safety comes from us having what we need. It comes from our communities having stable housing, good jobs, health care, connection—a cohesion with one another.”