At this point, every one of us has experienced the impacts of climate change, whether it was the smoke from wildfires blanketing Minnesota last summer or the oppressive heat earlier this summer. We are all vulnerable to climate change harms, but the truth is some people are more vulnerable than others. And to build the kind of Minnesota in which we all thrive, we need to address these inequities.
Low-income and Black, Indigenous and people of color in Minnesota are more vulnerable to climate change. This increased vulnerability is not the result of their personal decisions. Rather it’s the result of collective decisions made over decades that literally embed racism into the geography of where we live and the way health, opportunity, and wealth are distributed.
Extreme heat is one example of how racial inequity shows up in climate change impacts. Climate change increases the hot days everyone experiences, and heat makes many health issues like COPD or asthma worse. But the level of extreme heat and subsequent health impacts that someone experiences depends on where they live. A study of urban heat found that on the hottest days in Minneapolis, historically red-lined neighborhoods were up to 10 degrees hotter than other neighborhoods. A study of Minnesota birth records co-authored by Dr. Rachel Hardeman found that pregnant Black women experiencing a seven-day heat wave were at higher risk for preterm birth than white women. Extreme heat is just one example in which the health effects of climate change are racially unjust.
As we address climate change, we must simultaneously unweave the threads of racial injustice to find solutions. Climate expert Ayana Elizabeth Johnson urges, “I need you to understand that our racial inequality crisis is intertwined with our climate crisis. If we don’t work on both, we will succeed at neither.”
As a white person, I have the responsibility to examine my white privilege and understand how it intersects with our shared path forward on climate change. My growing knowledge of my white privilege leads me to educate myself and speak out about the need for climate solutions that integrate racial and social justice. As a public health professional, I’ve researched how systemic racism makes BIPOC Minnesotans more vulnerable to climate impacts. I’ve stepped up to use this expertise to help educate others and advocate for change. As the volunteer policy director with Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate, I co-authored “Climate Justice & Public Health in Minnesota: Equitable Solutions to the Climate Crisis.”
This report goes beyond just studying the problem and recommends policy solutions to reduce inequities connected to climate change. These recommendations include listening to and working with vulnerable communities, such as those identified by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency as environmental justice areas of concern. We need to take steps to reduce the pollution burden in these communities. We also need to tackle education and income disparities, uphold Indigenous treaty rights, decarbonize all sectors of the economy in an equitable manner, build clean and accessible transit systems, and leave no urban or rural community behind on our path toward climate justice.
Environmentalist Jeremy Williams notes, “Just as white privilege is freedom from the consequences of racism, climate privilege is freedom from the consequences of climate breakdown.” How can white people recognize their climate privilege and support climate justice? First and foremost, educate yourself. Read our report. Read “The Sum of Us” by Heather McGhee. Talk about these issues with your network of friends and family to normalize having challenging conversations about climate change and racial privilege.
One of the best places to get involved in solutions is through local climate action, where you can make real connections with people in your community. If your city has a climate action plan, review and understand its goals and strategies. If your city does not have a climate action plan, advocate with your city leaders to develop one. See Dr. Kate Knuth’s and the 100% Campaign’s analysis of City Climate Action Plans in Minnesota for more information. Be a climate justice voter. Vote for local, state, and national candidates who don’t just support climate justice policies but will actually champion them.
We each have a role in tackling the climate crisis in Minnesota by integrating racial justice into all climate policies and actions. I urge my fellow white Minnesotans to be allies in the fight for racial and climate justice by examining your “climate privilege” with an open mind, listening and learning, and taking action to undo the racial injustices that make some of our neighbors more vulnerable to the harms of climate change.
Kathleen Schuler, MPH, is the policy director with Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate.