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Committing to Fight Environmental Racism

22 January 2024

By Paul Bethel 
North American Climate Justice Team 
Huntington Beach, California, USA 

The 2023 World Conference produced some powerful resolutions that we still are figuring out how to live. 

WCR1325 opens with: 

Resolved, That Community of Christ joins with others in declaring a climate emergency. 

And WCR1326 opens with: 

Resolved, Because Jesus has declared God’s love for all the world and all creation, Community of Christ acknowledges that racism is a sin. 

A few months after our World Conference, the USA celebrated our most recently declared national holiday, Juneteenth. I’m embarrassed to admit that I grew up knowing nothing about Juneteenth. It’s been in just the past few years that I’ve become aware of the date’s significance. 

I suspect many of us were, or are, unfamiliar with Juneteenth. It may pass us by every year unless we try to go to the bank or post office. Is there a connection between Juneteenth and our two World Conference resolutions? 

Juneteenth commemorates the end of overt slavery in the USA. I say overt because ample evidence indicates racial equality has been elusive. The story of justice still is being written, so Juneteenth isn’t just about history. It also should be a call to action to implement the two resolutions mentioned. 

How does Juneteenth intertwine with climate? We can look at cases where racial injustice drives environmental injustice, which leads to the phrase environmental racism. Environmental racism can be in your face—or it can be sneaky and hidden. 

Glaring national headlines bring examples to our attention, such as the lead contamination in the water in Flint, Michigan. You might even have heard about the water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi. Even the most cynical must entertain the idea that these disasters occurred because Flint and Jackson are predominantly Black communities. 

However, there are less-visible examples, institutional examples that allow some to benefit at the expense of others. We need to be aware that those affected most are the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) communities. 

  • A space between Baton Rouge and New Orleans in Louisiana is nicknamed Cancer Alley. It’s home to more than 200 petrochemical plants that spew a noxious cocktail of poisons into the air. The chemical plants have regular “accidents” that release even more toxins beyond what permits allow. The area is over eighty-five percent BIPOC, and residents experience cancer and respiratory diseases at rates up to fifty times higher than that of the national average. 
  • In 2008, more than a billion gallons of toxic coal ash burst from holding ponds and spilled into the Emory River in Kingston, Tennessee, covering 300 acres with sludge full of arsenic, mercury, and lead. Kingston is ninety percent white. To avoid poisoning residents in Kingston, the Tennessee Valley Authority received approval from the Environmental Protection Agency to transport the coal ash waste to a landfill in Uniontown, Alabama. Ninety percent of Uniontown’s residents are Black. Once the coal ash was in Uniontown, the EPA labeled it nonhazardous, though it was classified as hazardous in Kingston. The landfill continues to advertise accepting hazardous waste from all over the country despite continued protests by the city inhabitants. 
  • A practice from the 1930s called redlining ensured people of color were kept out of certain parts of a city and identified areas they were allowed to move into. If you were Black, Latino, Indigenous, or sometimes Asian, the redlined zones were the only areas where you could get a loan to buy a house. As the world heats up, heat-related illness and death affect people least able to mitigate the effects. Environmental effects continue to haunt redlined neighborhoods. Those areas are hotter than other areas in cities. A National Public Radio study of 108 urban areas comparing redlined areas to those not affected by redlining found average high temperatures to be up to thirteen degrees higher. Urban areas tend to be hotter simply because of more concrete, which stores heat. The redlined, segregated communities tend to have less green space, fewer trees along the streets, and fewer parks. 
  • Oil wells and gas operations have been linked to a growing list of serious health consequences, including birth defects, premature birth, respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, cognitive and behavioral problems, and cancer. Oil and gas wells are proven to emit the super pollutant methane, as well as toxic compounds like benzene and xylene, and particulate matter. A Yale study in Pennsylvania reported that children living within a mile of a well at birth were three times more likely to develop leukemia by age seven than those who didn’t. A study published in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology examined thirty-three US cities and found more than 12,000 wells in redlined areas. Los Angeles topped the list with 6,600 in redlined areas. There are double the number of oil and gas wells in redlined neighborhoods compared to other areas. 
  • A study from the Yale School of the Environment shows that when corporations violate environmental laws, the fines tend to be lower when the contamination is in communities of color or poor communities. Lower fines result in more pollution, which decreases property values. As a result, more polluting industries move into the area, creating a vicious cycle. 
  • In June 2023, The Los Angeles County district attorney announced criminal charges against S&W Atlas Iron and Metal Corp. for disposing of hazardous waste without permit next door to Jordan High School in Watts. The district attorney’s office said soil samples from the high school reveal excessive levels of lead and zinc contamination. Also, the students routinely breathe in dust with lead and other toxic materials. Students, parents, residents, and activists had tried to call attention to the pollution for years. 

 Now might be a good time to revisit Matthew 25:42–45 NRSVUE: 

…for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me. 

Can this be considered “Lord, when did we see you living where the air was unfit to breathe, or the water unfit to drink, or the soil poisonous to touch and did not help you?” 

How does this affect how we respond to WCR1325 and 1326? How do we respond when the climate emergency and the sin of racism overlap? 

In response, we might ask how we can combat environmental racism. We can listen to and prioritize solutions for those living in environmental-justice communities. We have ignored the voices of BIPOC communities far too long. Those voices are the ones we should be listening to most. 

We also must educate ourselves about the dangers of environmental racism. Too few Community of Christ members are aware of this problem, and we cannot fight an issue we don’t know exists. 

Finally, as a faith group we can donate, protest, and reach out to local government officials. If we are to honor these two resolutions, we must not stay silent. We must raise our voices to be part of the change these resolutions demand. 

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