The international dimensions of environmental problems are becoming the focus of attention as they gain center stage in debates concerning the future of our planet. The range of issues being discussed is extensive, but global warming seems to be a common subject in most conversations.
The coexistence of environmentalism and economic development and the need for cooperation, fairness and equity among countries seems to be another of the major questions.
In the midst of our global environmental conversations we must keep in mind that the activities of human society, on a broad scale, are harmful to all — but to some more than others. In the case of global warming, we all suffer along with the planet, but for island nations that will disappear, or for indigenous communities, it is not an "environmental problem," it is the literal destruction of their environment, history, legacy and lives.
In the United States, communities of color are also drastically affected. A recent report by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation notes the disproportionate correlation between African Americans and climate change. The report argues that African Americans are less responsible for climate change but suffer more from the health impacts.
In 1987 the existence of a nationwide pattern of disproportionate environmental risk based on race was demonstrated for the United States This evidence challenged the U.S. environmental movement to recognize its tendency to ignore issues of race, class and gender when setting agendas for social action.
Today, the mainstream environmental community is involved in serious discussions about how to frame the eco-justice issues along with those dealing with environmental justice or environmental racism; however, to look at the issue of global warming as one that is in opposition to those confronted by the environmental justice movement will be a mistake.
The global environmental justice movement compels us to rethink our understanding of global environmental problems and existing proposals to solve them. Justice is an essential demand, in the aftermath of historic, systematic discrimination and disproportionate environmental degradation of those on the margins.
If we look at global warming as an issue of human rights and environmental justice we will be able to see the connection between the local and the global. Rising temperatures are already affecting the lives of million of humans, particularly in people of color, low-income and indigenous communities. The health of many has been already compromised, their financial reality has become a burden and their social and cultural lives have been disrupted.
As we discuss, research and seek solutions to our climate and energy problems we must seek to ensure the right of all people to live, work, play and pray in safe, healthy, clean environments. We must envision a transition to a future that protects the most vulnerable from the impacts of climate change.
The Rev. C.J. Correa Bernier is the United Church of Christ's minister for environmental justice.