Katherine McCabe / Gavel Media

Unpacking the Relationship Between Climate Change and Racial Injustice

On Thursday, April 15, the Clough Center hosted Dr. Lisa Benjamin, who lectured on the impacts of climate change on communities of color in the U.S. and internationally.

Benjamin is an Assistant Professor of Law at Lewis & Clark University. She is originally from the Bahamas, an island country disproportionately affected by climate change. Benjamin is an internationally recognized expert on the Paris Agreement and is an appointed member of the Compliance Committee of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), serving a three-year term from 2019-2021.

Benjamin began her lecture by introducing the relationship between climate, racial, and economic justice. 

“Climate justice is not just about the law,” began Benjamin. “Where you have economic inequality, those communities will experience greater impacts of climate change.”

Around the world, we are working to prevent the global temperature from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius, or even worse, two degrees Celsius.

“There is a major difference between 1.5 and two degrees Celsius. It will have a disproportionate effect on indigenous communities reliant on agriculture and fisheries. It will get disproportionately worse as we increase from 1.5 onwards,” said Benjamin. 

As a native of a Caribbean island, Benjamin voiced concern over the impacts of climate change on her country. The Southern Hemisphere tropics are projected to experience the largest impacts of climate change. 

“The recent hurricanes in the Caribbean are the worst in my lifetime, but they will only get worse,” explained Benjamin. “People were literally washed out of their homes and some of the bodies have never been found.”

Benjamin testified to the immense psychological trauma caused by losing literally everything you own. People lost their physical possessions and family members. Many families were not able to bury their loved ones because the bodies were washed away at sea. 

“It is an unvirtuous cycle of loss and damage. You cannot recover. The government doesn’t have the funds to recover and then another event occurs. The psychological trauma is extreme,” warned Benjamin. 

Climate change also disproportionately impacts communities of color. Benjamin referenced the term “Climate Apartheid” coined by one of her colleagues to discuss the racial context of climate harms. 

“1.5 degrees could expose several hundred million people, two degrees would put an additional four million at risk and one to two billion for inadequate water sources,” stated Benjamin. 

There is a paradox in society: the richest communities are causing double the amount of carbon emissions, but poorer communities are facing the negative consequences.

For example, the largest source of carbon consumption in the United States is driving. White populations statistically drive more than communities of color. However, communities of color are bearing the brunt of larger emissions because they live next to highways and factories. Benjamin referenced statistics of higher rates of stillbirth and preterm birth in Black mothers due to these climate harms. 

To conclude her lecture, she referenced COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on communities of color. Climate change and fossil fuel emissions are already making these communities more vulnerable to health conditions. 

“These are systemic socioeconomic issues. Many people of color could not work from home because of their jobs. They are not close to community health resources and therefore cannot benefit from social distancing,” Benjamin said. 

“Environmental justice is related to racial justice. We really cannot divorce the two because they are so closely tied to health justice. There is always an argument about who is doing enough, but while we argue, the impacts of climate change are getting worse and worse,” concluded Benjamin. 


History major with a whole lot of love for all things Harry Styles