Children's playground in front of a power plant
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Environmental Justice

Photo by Thomas Barrat/Shutterstock

Advancing Racial Justice Means Ending Fossil Fuel Reliance


If we want to get serious about disrupting white supremacy, we need to understand environmental racism and its perpetrators.



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Charles Koch, the GOP donor and billionaire who, with his brother David, made his fortune on fossil fuels (crude oil in particular), has recently admitted that he “screwed up” with his decades-long strategic investments to support division and partisanship in United States politics. This so-called apology is part of his book tour as he promotes Believe in People: Bottom-Up Solutions for a Top-Down World, in which he claims to be “horrified” by some of the politicians that the Koch Industry network has supported. Although this kind of self-reflective admission legitimizes widespread concerns about the dangers and injustices that he and other members of the polluter elite have perpetuated, Koch fails to acknowledge how 50 years of pro-fossil fuel advocacy has had an impact on racial disparities by reinforcing structural racism and elevating a culture of white supremacy.  

From funding university-affiliated research centers and state-based think-tanks, to making sure climate-denying politicians are seated in legislatures across the country, the Koch network has been one of the largest driving forces behind climate misinformation in the United States. This is unsurprising for a company that draws its wealth from producing and distributing chemicals, fertilizer, refined oil, gas, and more. Much of the Koch network’s success in cutting environmental regulations and delaying action on climate change can be attributed to its commitment to a “battle of ideas” that seeks to mainstream favorable narratives of privatization and limited government intervention, along with the direct promotion of climate change denial content. And people are listening. 

The 2020 election has revealed a lot about America. Over 70 million Americans Republican voters have bought into a politics of exclusion by embracing white supremacy and denying the climate crisis and environmental racism. Links between structural racism, racial capitalism, and fossil fuel interests may not be obvious to all, but it is time to connect the dots. To advance racial justice in the United States and begin to heal the wounds of centuries of racism, the destructive power of the Koch network of fossil fuel interests must be stopped.   

For decades, fossil fuel interests have fought to sustain racial inequities and resist efforts to advance racial justice. To maintain their power, profit, and political influence, fossil fuel companies rely on both climate denialism and continued structural inequities. To concentrate their wealth and power, they must perpetuate the notion that Black lives are less important than their profits. Their business model relies on the existence of sacrificial communities, disproportionately Black and brown communities, that do not have adequate political representation to resist. To put it plainly, the continued degradation, suffering, and death of communities of color by fossil fuel interests are reliant on and reinforcing a culture of white supremacy.

People of color in the United States are much more likely to live near polluters and breathe polluted air than white people. In Louisiana, the stretch of the area alongside the Mississippi River corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans has been nicknamed “Cancer Alley,” due to the overwhelming number of petrochemical plants. The majority of folks living in these riverside communities are Black, and find themselves within ten miles of 30 different plants, each one dumping toxins into the nearby water and air. 

Living next to these types of harmful coal-fired power plants, incinerators, chemical factories, and other polluters—like 68% of Black Americans—increases the risk of both air and water infiltration, resulting in chronic medical conditions like cancers, asthma, and heart, kidney, liver, and lung diseases. Combine that with being a medically underserved community, and it’s no wonder Black and brown folks are more at risk. It also doesn’t help when both corporations and the government turn their backs on these communities. It’s been over ten years since over a billion gallons of toxic coal ash spilled into the Emory River in Kingston, Tennessee, affecting predominantly Black communities as far away as Uniontown, Alabama. Since the spill, workers who were part of the cleanup effort are living with the effects of exposure, including brain cancer, lung cancer, and leukemia. Despite multiple complaints, public testimony, and court hearings, no pollution mitigation has been implemented, and the communities impacted continue to be poisoned.  

Places like Cancer Alley and Kingston, Tennessee, aren’t unique, and communities of color across the U.S. are fraught with similar challenges. Unfortunately, we have corporate giants like Koch to contend with. The Koch-funded Center for Regulatory Studies at George Washington University almost universally advocates against environmental regulation and relies primarily on researchers with ties to groups funded by the Koch family. The Trump administration has acted on many of the center’s polluter-friendly recommendations, such as reducing the costs that the government attributes to greenhouse gases and raising the bar for issuing new energy efficiency standards. All of which continues to harm the most vulnerable communities impacted by environmental racism. 

While the harm has been great, we can begin to heal and protect these communities by tightening environmental restrictions on corporations that do the most damage. The first step is listening to the Black and brown folks who have been organizing against environmental racism for years. Communities of color have not accepted this harm silently, yet their advocacy has been ignored from those capable of making change. President-elect Biden will have a lot of repairing to do in the wake of Trump’s administration, and he must listen to the grassroots activists who have been agitating for change. Youth-led organizations like Powershift Network, and Sunrise Movement should have voices in the formation of new environmental legislation. 

It will take a multi-pronged approach to repair many of these issues: Not only do we need to pass climate legislation that actually makes a difference, we also need to work on fixing the disparate socioeconomic effects of climate change and pollution. There needs to be a distinct conversation about the impact of racism when discussing the environment for any true legislation to work. Otherwise, it’s simply slapping a bandaid on a broken bone. 

With the release of his book, Charles Koch is posturing faux-bipartisanship and a people-powered agenda that is not reflective of the outcomes of the investments of the fossil fuel interests to which he is so loyal. He may be using this mea culpa press tour to tout the “Boy, did we screw up. What a mess!” message, but unfortunately Koch hasn’t stopped any of his harmful practices. 

For too long, the conservative culture of white supremacy has been supported by fossil fuel interests, like Koch Industries, and other fossil fuel companies and lobbies, who have fought against a just transition. And these fossil fuel interests have been opposing racial and economic justice in order to further concentrate their wealth and power. Disrupting the harm they cause is critical in order to achieve racial, economic, and environmental justice.

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