Wildfires Highlight Inequity in Environmental, Climate Crises

In recent weeks, footage of the fires currently raging through the state of California has appeared in the news and on social media. We have seen houses destroyed, communities devastated, and families left without clear options. As of Nov. 11, more than 1.5 million acres had burned — the most ever recorded in a single fire season — which has caused nearly $3 billion in damages and control operations and has killed more than 50 people and left more than 130 people missing.

Even as firefighters across the state are working overtime to get the blazes under control, communities and neighborhoods continue to be overwhelmed. The threat has caused some wealthy homeowners to take matters into their own hands by hiring private firefighters to protect their homes and communities — a service offered through high-end property insurance policies.
While Kim Kardashian and Kanye West hiring a private team to preserve their multi-million dollar mansion may be an interesting headline — and may even benefit those living in their vicinity — celebrating this approach misses the bigger, and more frightening, story.

When high-income residents are able to use their private wealth to protect themselves and their neighborhoods, it leaves lower-income communities without equal protection from environmental and climate-related hazards. These communities must depend largely on teams of volunteer firefighters, which are simply too understaffed to confront the magnitude of California’s current crisis. Rural, low-income communities are at particularly high risk. These places are already very difficult to get to, and a shortage of firefighters only makes protection even more inaccessible.

For these reasons, among others, it is essential that we acknowledge these wildfires — and other instances of climate disaster — as political events. The discrepancies between high- and low-income communities are inherently political. Further, the lack of political action around climate change speaks volumes — especially as wildfires and other climate disasters become increasingly common and severe. We have been driven to a stark reality in which the wealthy hire their own environmental protection, while low-income communities are left to bear the brunt of the destruction.

Climate disasters may seem different from infrastructure failures or environmental racism; however, the political nature of both their increased occurrence and disproportionate impact pushes us to consider them as similar to the water crisis in Flint, MI, and the many battles over oil and gas pipelines, including in Standing Rock.

To begin, the impacts of all three examples — the California fires, Flint, and the battle over the Dakota Access Pipeline in Standing Rock — have disproportionately fallen on low-income communities and, particularly in the cases of Flint and Standing Rock, communities of color. In each instance, private wealth played a large role in the decisions that have created these enormous burdens on marginalized populations.

Soon after Flint’s water supply switched over to the source that has poisoned its residents, the local Ford plant discovered that the new water had begun to corrode its parts. After Ford — a major economic player in Flint and in Michigan more broadly — complained to the city, it was allowed to switch over to a less toxic source. Flint residents, who are predominantly Black, were forced to continue drinking water that was too contaminated for industrial use.

Similarly, the Dakota Access Pipeline was originally slated to go through Bismarck, ND, until residents expressed their distaste with having a pipeline cut directly through the middle of their community. In response, the pipeline was rerouted through Standing Rock — a community of lower-income Indigenous residents who were not given the same political power as Bismarck inhabitants and were left, after a lengthy resistance that received limited to no support from the government, to carry the entirety of the environmental and social toll.

In both situations, it was low-income communities of color who were left at a disadvantage after wealthier communities and corporations leveraged their economic standing to avoid experiencing the damages of environmental health hazards. Now, the same dynamics are present in responses to climate crises, in addition to environmental racism and infrastructure failure, as low-income communities in California are depending on a completely understaffed and underfunded firefighting force, while wealthy citizens hire their own personal firefighters for protection.

These are unacceptable circumstances which remind us of the importance of grappling with the connection between capitalism, the environment, and climate change. The path we’re on will allow people and corporations to use private wealth to avoid the negative impacts of climate change, leaving lower-income people and communities to bear the brunt of our collective failure to be effective environmental stewards.

Even current policies that are endorsed by prominent environmental organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund are not adequate solutions. Take cap-and-trade as an example. This system would look to control carbon emissions and other forms of pollution by limiting the amount organizations can emit, while allowing further capacity to be purchased from other institutions that have not used their full allowance. Cap-and-trade in particular would allow larger corporations to basically buy the right to pollute more. The pollution produced by these corporations would still cause significant environmental damage to the surrounding communities. Many communities that exist in direct proximity to large industries often tend to be lower-income. Thus, policies like cap-and-trade, though they may be well-intentioned, still reinforce and even strengthen the harmful connection between capitalism and the environment.

It is imperative that we continue to fight for equitable distribution of climate and environmental burdens while also minimizing the ways in which we harm our planet. If we do not start implementing adequate solutions, environmental crises that disproportionately affect low-income communities will continue to cause irreversible damage.