NASA’s Sativa Cruz is an intern focusing on Diversity and Inclusion at NASA. The agency believes in driving innovation, creativity and employee engagement by fostering an atmosphere of inclusion and respect for all.
The Earth’s climate is changing. This reality has serious implications for all who call this blue-green planet home.
- We are experiencing a rise in global temperatures, with nineteen of the past twenty years being the warmest on record since 1880.1 The U.S. Pacific Northwest recently experienced an extreme heat wave unlike any other in modern history.2 Historically underserved communities, particularly low income and communities of color, are known to be disproportionally exposed to extreme heat, particularly within urban areas that lack protective tree canopy and have extensive heat-trapping infrastructure like roads and buildings.3
- Anthropogenic, or human-caused climate change is resulting in extreme weather events, drought, and other environmental challenges around the globe. “The intensity, frequency and duration of North Atlantic hurricanes, as well as the frequency of the strongest (Category 4 and 5) hurricanes, have all increased since the early 1980s.”4 The disastrous impacts of hurricane Katrina, Irma, Maria, and Harvey are just some examples known to negatively impact communities marginalized based on race and ethnicity, and communities of lower socioeconomic status.5,6,7
- Habitat and biodiversity loss is happening at an alarming rate, with up to 1 million species threatened with extinction.8 Recent studies predict that at least 32% of land is owned or governed by Indigenous peoples or local communities and at least 36% of remaining intact forests are within Indigenous Peoples’ lands.9,10,11 Despite their crucial role in sustaining biodiversity, indigenous people are consistently excluded from decision-making processes.12,13
These examples highlight a global trend - marginalized, minoritized, tribal, indigenous and low-income communities are experiencing, and projected to continue to experience, significant negative impacts and a disproportionate burden from climate change. This is environmental injustice. How can NASA Earth Observations help?
A call to action
Environmental injustice occurs when certain communities experience a disproportionate burden of environmental challenges such as exposure to air pollution, contaminated water, habitat loss, and disrupted livelihood due to natural hazards and climate change. The people most impacted are usually from marginalized, minoritized, tribal, indigenous and low-income communities. These injustices are often influenced by their regional political, social and environmental settings. Unfortunately, environmental injustices have been and are happening around the world.
The Biden administration released a call to action on the climate crisis and environmental justice in Executive Order 14008 (released January 27, 2021).14 In this Executive Order, the White House calls on all federal agencies to “make achieving environmental justice part of their missions.” According to the Environmental Protection Agency “Environmental justice (EJ) is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.”15
This call to action is not new but is experiencing a renewed focus.16,17 As we prepare to address complex challenges of global scale, from pandemics to climate change, we must ask:
- What voices are not being heard?
- Who is left out of the decision-making process?
- What livelihoods are directly tied to an ecosystem?
- Who is bearing the brunt of environmental degradation?
Prioritizing and focusing on vulnerable and disproportionality impacted communities is important to preserving biodiversity and ecosystems and equitably protecting people from environmental hazards.
Water- vital resource and examples of injustice
Around the world, we can see increasing examples of environmental injustices, particularly related to the management and access to water resources. It is estimated that over 2 billion people lack access to safe drinking water.18 Water is a vital resource.19 As our climate changes and populations grow, balancing the demands for water with supplies has become increasingly challenging. Marginalized communities around the world are grappling with disproportionately more and more severe threats to:
- Sanitation due to inadequate or lack of infrastructure
- Agriculture water management due to drought conditions
- Vulnerability to extreme weather/floods
- Overall water quality and supply
For example, in Flint, Michigan, a decision made by local officials that changed the source of drinking water for the city uncovered larger issues in poor infrastructure and inadequate water treatment and testing. Predominately African American communities and communities of low socioeconomic status in Flint experienced the greatest exposure to lead contaminated water.20 Exposure to high levels of lead, particularly in young children, has serious negative impacts on both mental and physical development, turning the clean water crisis in Flint to a public health crisis as well. Initially, when community members expressed their concerns of foul water exiting their pipes, they were largely ignored by local officials. It took sustained civic engagement to bring this environmental injustice front and center.20,21
Another example of an environmental injustice comes from communities in Salina Grandes, Argentina and Atacama, Chile. Indigenous communities have been experiencing environmental stress due to decades of extensive lithium mining. For example, water availability has been threatened by large volumes of water allocated to lithium extraction and processing from foreign mining projects. In both of these regions, indigenous communities have been calling for greater involvement in resource management related decision making.22,23
How can NASA Earth Observations help achieve environmental justice?
Momentum around the concept of environmental justice is permeating what we do at NASA.24 NASA’s Earth observations can be applied to identify and address environmental challenges that are disproportionality impacting specific communities. Water is just one focus area where NASA satellite and modeling capabilities can help.25,26 For example, Earth observations have been used in Brazil, India and Turkey to better understand drought.27,28,29,30,31 They can also provide insight to assist in water management challenges, such as visualization of the water balance in the Nile Basin.32,33 The USAID and NASA joint-led program SERVIR is also increasing access to information and supporting analysis for people around the world.34 For example, USAID, NASA and the government of Peru collaborated recently on ways to track gold mining in the Amazon.35
Striving for an environmentally just world requires our sincere and sustained efforts. It requires time and care to acknowledge communities that have been and continue to be ignored and marginalized, and dedication to protect the remaining biological and cultural diversity. NASA Earth Observations can help us with identifying areas that are at a particular risk for environmental injustice and ensuring that everyone is able to mitigate impacts and adapt to the inevitably changing world.