Impact of Race in Climate Change

For some, climate change is an issue to deal with later. For others, it is a catastrophe they are dealing with now.

by Palak Srivastava, PBI Intern

Systematic racism is an issue that protrudes into each and every crevice of society, and climate is no exception. Keeping that in mind, discourse about climate change is mostly about rising temperature or increasing carbon emissions. What is left out of many conversations is who exactly is being affected by such climate trends.

Environmental injustice refers to the disproportionate impact of climate change that has befallen low income and minority communities. Though much of the world has been impacted by climate change, certain communities bear the brunt of its harm. For example, for years in the United States, minority communities have been forced to live near oil refineries and gas wells that pollute their air, to live in homes near toxic waste facilities that poison their drinking water, and to experience worsening extreme heat that affects low-income and nonwhite communities significantly more than people who live in whiter, wealthier counterparts. In the United States, a 2021 analysis found that American Indians, Alaska Natives, Latinos, and Black people are more likely to experience the effects of global temperature rising, including flooding from sea-level rise, lost income, and higher mortality rates.

What makes the issue even more disturbing is when you break down who exactly is responsible for climate change’s acceleration in the first place. In the global landscape, rich industrialized countries (including the United States, Canada, Japan, and much of western Europe) only make up 12 percent of the world’s population yet they are responsible for 50 percent of the Earth’s greenhouse gases released from fossil fuels and industry, according to a study in 2021. On an individual basis, the richest 10 percent of households were responsible for 49 percent of emissions while the poorest half of the world’s population only contributed 7% of emissions, according to data from 2015. However, despite contributing to a minority of emissions, the people and nations who have historically, and continue to be, subordinated on account of their race or ethnicity are the ones who live in the global sacrifice zones.” These are the regions that are becoming hazardous to live in and possibly uninhabitable because of environmental degradation. A report to the UN warned that after years of colonialism and externally imposed economic policies, these countries that were subject to colonialism do not have the framework or systems needed to handle climate change and are suffering the consequences for the actions of others.

Though the path to rectification is never easy, with the power of the law, there is a lot that can be done. From providing communities and leaders with the legal resources they need to implement climate tools, to facilitating meetings with agency leaders, there are critical actions that lawyers can take to help address climate change and environmental injustice, including pro bono work.

Below are some recent examples of legal pro bono work in this field:

  • Proskauer Rose* began representing Instituto Recicleiros (Recicleiros), a Brazilian non-profit, in 2022 and succeeded in securing it a grant from the Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW). With this funding, Recicleiros not only has worked toward proper disposal of waste and increased recycling efforts, diminishing the health and environmental hazards faced by minorities living near informal dump sites, but also has provided technical training and formal jobs in waste collection and recycling to marginalized and vulnerable people.
  • Latham & Watkins* has represented pro bono Ridges to Rifles, a Native American-led nonprofit based in California, since 2021, as it has worked to remove dams on the Klamath River. The river is one of the most important West Coast rivers for salmon, steelhead, and rainbow trout migrations which for Native American tribes, including the Yurok and Karuk, are central to their way of life, their culture, and their prosperity. FERC approved the removal of the dams in 2022 and work will begin in 2023. The removal of these dams represents the largest river restoration project in U.S. history.
  • White & Case* worked pro bono on behalf of the United Nations Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (UN-REDD) Programme in 2022 to review legislation on carbon rights, forest preservation and climate change in 27 developing countries. As it can be hard for developing countries to meet climate change commitments, identifying the legal frameworks they need in order to strengthen their legislation is critical for achieving results.
  • Willkie Farr & Gallagher* organized the first renewable energy focused nonprofit organization pro bono in Houston, Renewable Energy Alliance – Houston (REAL) in 2020. REAL is one of the primary platforms in Houston for renewable energy executives to network and exchange thought leadership and to grow the renewable energy industry in the Greater Houston area and beyond. Working to shift from fossil fuels will greatly help minority communities when considering the disproportionate effects its extraction, transportation, processing, and consumption has on Black and Brown communities.
  • Arnold & Porter* created the Renewable Energy Legal Defense Initiative (RELDI) in 2019, a program that provides pro bono representation for organizations and individuals that want to participate in the scaling-up of renewable energy. One such case that Arnold & Porter lawyers took part in was New York state court proceedings challenging a town’s zoning law aimed at significantly restricting local solar energy development. Their widespread efforts to establish sources of renewable energy is integral to ensuring that vulnerable communities have the clean air they deserve.
  • Boies Schiller Flexner secured victory for ClientEarth in litigation pro bono before the Polish Courts in 2019 by successfully challenging a board resolution about the planned construction of a coal-fired power plant in northeastern Poland. The last of Poland’s coal plants, this marks a big step forward in ensuring the eradication of fossil fuel usage.

There are also many organizations fueled by a common purpose to fight for the people hurt by the inequities that come with climate change. Here are a few that work with pro bono volunteers:

  • Alternatives for Community and Environment (ACE) builds the power of communities of color and low-income communities in Massachusetts to eradicate environmental racism and classism, create healthy, sustainable communities, and achieve environmental justice.
  • Environmental Law Institute connects attorneys and communities to solve pressing environmental problems. Whether it’s helping a local community form a new organization to deal with environmental problems, arguing in front of the local zoning board, or filing impact litigation, ELI offers numerous ways to support communities in need through environmental pro bono work.
  • Green Pro Bono matches volunteer attorneys with climate change NGOs in their area of law for which volunteers can offer pro bono legal services. The general type of legal services requested include incorporation advice, taxation advice, intellectual property advice, patent advice, non-profit advice, employment advice, contract drafting, advocacy and general corporate advice.
  • Environmental Protection Network connects EPA alumni volunteers (g., former engineers and scientists) with pro bono private practice and retired attorneys looking to take on a pro bono matter. Pro bono volunteers can help communities, NGOs, and state, local, and tribal agencies navigate the EPA, regulatory processes and/or federal policies, formulate potential grants, and access publicly available data to support their work.
  • Lawyers For Good Government’s Climate Change and Environmental Justice Program tackles the causes and effects of climate change by providing legal resources and services to states, local governments, NGOs, and frontline communities to expedite the country’s transition to a green economy and to directly address environmental racism. Specifically, the organization needs volunteers for its Project Finance and Tax Attorneys IRA Implementation, its Decarbonization and Climate Resilience Clinic Support Team, general CCEJ volunteering, and for grassroots organizations at the state/local level.
  • New York Lawyers for the Public Interest partners with community-based organizations, advocacy groups, and residents to provide organizing and legal assistance to low-income neighborhoods and communities of color that bear an unfair burden of environmental threats. Pro bono assistance is provided in three areas – litigation, transactional, and partnership projects.
  • Public Interest Law Center uses high-impact legal strategies to advance the civil, social, and economic rights of communities in the Philadelphia region facing discrimination, inequality, and poverty. Opportunities for volunteer attorneys range from assisting in class action lawsuits to providing legal support to community members.

Although climate change may seem like a distant trouble for some, for others, particularly in minority and low-income communities, it is a very real issue that is affecting their livelihoods right now. There is no doubt that climate change impacts us all, regardless of where you live, how much money you make, or who you are. But if you are under the illusion that there is still time, there is not.

As undergraduates and members of the next generation set to inherit the climate crisis, my peers and I recognize the danger our futures are in, as well as the fact that the clock is ticking. That is why for the sake of those most impacted – those riddled with extreme heat, lacking the proper resources to stay cool, those forced to constantly inhale toxic chemicals because they have no other choice than to reside in low-cost housing situated next to a power plant, those who are forced to rebuild their homes and livelihoods when wrecked with a natural disaster, there is no time to wait. If we come together and use our skills to start addressing these challenges, maybe, just maybe, we can have a chance at a future – for us all.