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Lit: Stories from the Frontlines of Climate Justice

Justice During COVID and Climate Change

As the impacts worsen from the coronavirus pandemic and climate change, longstanding injustices continue to put corporate profits over the benefit of all people. There is a more just path forward.

Un trabajador distribuye jugo de naranja en un estante de alimentos en Brooklyn el 14 de abril de 2020. La crisis del coronavirus está aumentando la inseguridad alimentaria.

A worker distributes orange juice in Brooklyn on April 14, 2020. The coronavirus crisis is increasing food insecurity across the country.

Scott Heins / Getty Images

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, it’s highlighting a longstanding chasm of inequality in our country as deaths number in the hundreds of thousands and millions lose their jobs, healthcare, and meager life savings. Our broken economic and social system has come clearly into view, along with the ways it prioritizes corporate profits for the few over the health and well-being of the many — particularly people of color.

America’s vulnerability to COVID-19 in many ways mirrors our vulnerability to the climate crisis, another global emergency that’s playing out over a longer horizon but manifesting in equally unjust ways.

There is a better way forward. Through visionary, concrete actions that ensure social, racial, and economic justice for everyone, we can protect ourselves, as well as the only planet we will ever have.

What are the parallels between COVID and climate?

For too long, the U.S. political and economic system has prioritized preserving the profits of a wealthy few over protecting the planet and its people.

Public health experts have warned for years that a pandemic was coming, that we weren’t prepared, and that too many Americans were excluded from the healthcare system.

But the U.S. government has historically moved far too slowly in addressing both crises, often citing economic concerns. Meanwhile, oil companies continue on with their deadly misinformation campaigns, which began in the 1970s and continues today.

A worker of Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust helps a homeless woman after she took a test for COVID-19.
A worker of Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust helps a homeless woman after she took a test for COVID-19.
Eva Marie Uzcategui / AFP / Getty Images

Is this pandemic affecting people equally?

While coronavirus vaccines are slowly rolled out, millions of Americans continue to shelter in place from the global pandemic. People's ability to socially distance, however, reveals vast inequalities. Some can work from home. Some have no homes at all to shelter in. Others are on the verge of losing the roof over their heads due to sudden unemployment.

Then there are many who must choose between going out to the front lines of this emergency — sometimes even when sick — or risk losing their livelihoods, including delivery drivers, grocery store clerks, farmworkers, warehouse employees, health care workers, nurses and home health aides. They do so often without proper protective gear and among crowded conditions. They are primarily blue-collar workers. They are often lower paid. And they are more likely to be women and people of color.

Many of these same communities are on the frontlines of the climate crisis, bearing the brunt of devastating storms, wildfires, and crop failure. They are also most likely to experience food and water shortages, disease, and poverty. They are disproportionately black and brown. And, they are less likely to get a COVID-19 vaccine given historically racist and dangerous healthcare policies that have targeted communities of color for decades.

The decisions being made around both the COVID-19 and climate crisis reveal who is listened to most in our society — and who suffers the consequences of government inaction.

A farm worker has his temperature checked in King City, California on April 28, 2020.
A farm worker has his temperature checked in King City, California on April 28, 2020.
Brent Stirton / Getty Images

How did we get here?

COVID-19 reveals two fundamental things about America: our lack of a strong social safety net, and the lack of a commitment to equity for all. Both have roots in America’s racist past and economic exclusion.

“America’s decision to let so many people keep sinking is because the people who are sinking are often black and brown,” says New York Times journalist Eduardo Porter.

During our nation’s history, these social and racial injustices have played out in many ways, such as the exclusion of black and brown people from citizenship until after the Civil War; racist immigration policies that started long before Trump; and a violation of Native American human rights. Segregation, isolation, exclusion. For people of color, indigenous communities, and tribal nations, social distancing from their communities is an all too familiar concept.

The influence of racism, which impacts where you live and what jobs you have, has meant that people of color are experiencing the greatest human impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. For instance, while African Americans make up about a third of Louisiana’s population, they comprise 70% of those dying from the virus. Similar disparities are playing out in North Carolina, South Carolina, Illinois, and Nevada. This increased vulnerability stems from people of color having less access to health care and more underlying health conditions, including asthma, which is linked to closer proximity to sources of pollution and a greater likelihood of death from COVID-19. And, African Americans and Latinos are also more often going into harm’s way for service jobs considered essential and can’t be done remotely.

These systemic injustices also impact other vulnerable communities, including migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural areas, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, the incarcerated, people with disabilities, and youth.

Paramedic Randy Lilly puts a surgical mask on a patient showing COVID-19 symptoms in Stamford, Connecticut.
Paramedic Randy Lilly puts a surgical mask on a patient showing COVID-19 symptoms in Stamford, Connecticut.
John Moore / Getty Images

What's a just response to these crises?

Both COVID-19 and climate change underscore a fundamental concept about justice that frontline communities have known and felt for all too long. You cannot separate racial justice, social justice, economic justice, or environmental justice from one another. It’s ALL justice. Both crises can only truly be addressed through broad-based, holistic solutions that tackle the systemic injustices within our society that allowed them to thrive in the first place.

That's why Earthjustice supports the THRIVE resolution, a bold agenda that pushes for the economy-wide job and justice creation mobilization that we need to tackle both COVID-19 and climate change, creating millions of union jobs and investing directly in Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities. We also applaud President Biden's groundbreaking efforts to prioritize bold climate action and environmental justice in his administration. Finally, in partnership with other environmental groups and environmental justice organizations, we're pushing for the adoption of the Equitable and Just Climate Platform.

Completely retooling our society is no easy feat. But the key to change is collective action, as history has shown and as we’re seeing yet again. After bus drivers in Birmingham, Alabama, refused to work without proper social distancing measures, the transit authority adopted new safety measures to protect drivers and passengers. A protest by healthcare workers in Oakland, California, pushed Alameda Health System to pay sick leave to those who fall ill attending COVID-19 patients. Outside the U.S., farmers in India are protesting the dire inequality that has existed across much of the country for decades and has only been exacerbated by COVID-19.

We must rebuild our economy sustainably and equitably — to lead to a future we all want to see for our families and communities, and particularly for those that have borne the brunt of a historically unjust system that puts profit over people and the planet.

This blog was originally published in April 2020. It has been updated to reflect the latest news.

About this Series

The climate crisis is a product of an unjust system that prioritizes profits above all else. For too long, the fossil fuel industry and its allies have greatly benefitted from this system, often at the expense of our most vulnerable communities.

It’s time to fight for climate solutions that ensure environmental, social, racial, and economic justice for all people. Lit: Stories from the Frontlines of Climate Justice, seeks to highlight these climate justice fights — and inspire others to stand up for their own communities and our shared future.

We know we can’t achieve zero emissions and 100 percent clean energy alone. Join our fight to ensure a more just and equitable world.

We're the lawyers for the environment, and the law is on our side.