Talking about climate change is a vital part of addressing the problems we’re currently facing. Natural disasters are worsening because of the rise in the Earth’s temperature; the ocean is currently going through acidification because of the increasing carbon dioxide emissions; wildfires have taken over various parts of the world for weeks and months, resulting in deaths, damage, and smoke. People, habitats, and animals are all affected by climate change and human actions.

But there’s another part of this conversation and fight: environmental justice. This term and movement fight against the unfortunate reality that vulnerable and marginalized communities are far more likely to experience pollution and contamination at a disproportionate level. People of color, poor people, and others are more likely to live near hazardous waste facilities, have lead contamination in the water, mold in public and private buildings, and so much more. The drinking water disaster of 2014/2015 in Flint, Michigan is just one example of environmental injustice.

Living near pollution and contamination sites has a massive effect on the people nearby and on their health. As they’re more likely to be exposed to pollutants, African Americans are disproportionately more likely to have complications from asthma, air pollution-related health problems, and are significantly more likely to get lead poisoning from their environment. A report from The American Lung Association found that 14 million people of color live in areas that deal with short and long term exposure to air/ozone pollution; this type of exposure results in a variety of health issues and is linked to higher rates of cardiovascular and respiratory issues. In turn, this makes people more vulnerable to things like Covid-19.

Environmental justice, as a movement, has been around for decades and many credit the work of a Southern community in starting the modern movement. In 1982, an industrial dump of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) had existed near Warren County in North Carolina for years; the chemical was found to be toxic and carcinogenic in the 1970s and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 furthered the EPA’s ban of PCBs by stipulating proper disposal. In 1978, a trucking company that was hired to dispose of some PCB transformer fluid decided to cut costs and illegally dumped 31,000 gallons of fluid onto soil along a highway.

Eventually, those responsible were caught and prosecuted while the soil was cleaned up and sequestered to a landfill in Afton, Warren County. That area had the highest percentage of black residents in the state and was one of the poorest. But the community in Warren County decided to fight back against the landfill. The fight, unfortunately, did not stop the landfill from happening but resulted in further research that found more examples of environmental injustice around the country.

Wildfires and other natural disasters are also affecting poor, vulnerable, and marginalized communities in different ways. While natural disasters are equalizing forces (because they hit the poor and rich alike), those with fewer resources have a significantly harder time recovering. In 2018, Gordon Douglas from the Institute for Metropolitan Studies at San Jose State University told the LA Times that “…wildfires ‘unquestionably’ have the potential to change the income and poverty demographics of a region”, as those with less wealth and resources are more likely to be displaced and move away from the area after a fire.

And other disasters tend to hit poorer communities the hardest. Cheaper homes that are built without strong foundations or storm windows are less safe in tornadoes and hurricanes. Low lying neighborhoods are hit by floods the hardest and tend to also be low-income neighborhoods. Those living paycheck to paycheck or have a disability may not be able to flee from incoming disasters or have the technology that warns of danger. Most of those who died in the 2018 Camp Fire in California were older and/or disabled.

People aren’t the only ones to be affected by pollution, as animals of all kinds also deal with pollution and contamination. Air pollution, for example, has made flower odors unattractive to pollinators, which can have numerous negative impacts. Oil spills have an incredibly disastrous effect on wildlife and can cause hypothermia, poisoning, decreased reproduction, and so much more. Plus, microfibers from clothing are now found in bodies of water all around the world and along with microplastics, are causing a variety of issues for marine life.

Our pets can also experience negative reactions to wildfire smoke and poor air quality. Compromised breathing, irritated eyes, fatigue or weakness, and coughing are all signs of possible smoke and dust irritation. It’s important to protect your pets from wildfire smoke as much as possible by keeping them inside with the windows closed. Brief bathroom breaks and no intense outdoor activities are important too while the air quality is poor. For livestock, make sure they have fresh water and mist any holding/feeding area. Throughout the year, make sure to maintain and clean the barn and field! Any evacuation plan should include plans for your animals. The American Veterinary Medical Association has resources on natural disaster planning for pets and large animals/livestock.

People and animals alike are affected by environmental injustice and pollution but the most marginalized and vulnerable among us are bearing the brunt of pollution and contamination. Environmental justice and the fight against climate change has to address the very things that are making so many people and animals sick and the ways in which the wealthiest contribute significantly more in carbon emissions while simultaneously not facing the worst of what’s happening. Caring for the earth also means caring for each other and ourselves.