By definition, environmental justice is when low-income or minority communities are disproportionately exposed to pollution, toxins or degraded environments. But if you ask Weinberg sophomore Denise Lopez, she’ll tell you it’s “the greatest struggle for our generation.”
On Wednesday, members of Northwestern’s Latina sorority, Sigma Lambda Gamma, and other interested students gathered to listen to Lopez discuss environmental injustice, an issue she has been passionate about her whole life.
As a Latina in America, Lopez said she is twice as likely as a white person is to live in an area where air pollution poses the greatest risk to health and five times more likely to live within walking distance of a power plant or chemical facility.
“Low-income communities of color are poisoned by the powerful in the name of making a profit,” Lopez said in her speech, referring mainly to Flint, Michigan, where people have been drinking contaminated water from the Flint River since 2014. In Flint, most residents are black and many are poor, and some wonder if the government would have responded more quickly to the crisis if Flint’s residents were white and rich.
Weinberg freshman Naomi Bañuelos listened to Lopez speak, and said that the talk reminded her of her hometown in Donna, Texas. The fish in the Donna Reservoir are contaminated with cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Bañuelos said the EPA came to her town and put up signs that told people not to fish there. However, efforts to prevent fishing have hardly been enforced.
“[The contamination] affects the low-income communities especially,” Bañuelos said. “They’re like, ‘No fishing,’ but I’ve biked past there, and there’s people fishing and selling the fish. If you’re poor, you’re going to buy the fish, because what are you going to eat?”
The issue of environmental justice has worldwide ramifications. Lopez mentioned the Pacific island nation Tuvalu, which has been “sinking” as a result of sea levels rising. The highest elevation in Tuvalu is only about 15 feet above sea level, leaving the nation especially vulnerable to rising waters.
One of the injustices of climate change is that many of the communities who suffer its greatest effects, like Tuvalu, are not the ones that are contributing the most emissions. This makes it even harder to address the problem, because those who are contributing the most may not see the effects of their actions right away.
“Climate change is seen as more long-term,” Lopez said, “so it’s a long, drawn-out battle. We have to make sure that people are aware.”
Lopez mentioned an article that outlined ways to work for environmental justice for interested students to follow. These range from working with divestment campaigns to understanding the intersection of climate change with issues of race, gender, socioeconomic status, and many other identities. Lopez said she hoped she inspired someone to take action for environmental justice.
“Hopefully someone walks out of here really passionate, and they tell their friends, and their friends tell more people,” Lopez said. “Throughout my life I’ve had that fire for environmental justice, so [I hope] for people to walk away with just a little spark of wanting to do better.”