Now Reading
Nature Sustainability: Systemic environmental racism exposed| Nature Sustainability

Nature Sustainability: Systemic environmental racism exposed| Nature Sustainability

Systemic environmental racism exposed | Nature Sustainability

A very brief window of opportunity in the COVID-19 economic shut down provides striking evidence for environmental disparity.

Even though environmental justice is advancing as a field of study, it has been difficult to accurately assess the impact of pollutant emissions on communities that are of color. This is because exposure to pollutants is strongly correlated with socioeconomic variables. The term “communities of color” is used in the United States to refer to Black, Latinx and Asian communities. Normal conditions can be explained by the long history and legal discrimination that has limited access to housing. Also, the polluting effect of the local economy cannot be disentangled from the overrepresentation or presence of polluting firms in or near communities. The coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19), pandemic, provided an excellent research opportunity to examine what happens in terms pollution exposure when the state economy is shut down. Writing in Nature SustainabilityRichard Bluhm and coworkers1Report how they used the strict COVID-19 California economic shutdown to separate the pollution-causing effects from the confounding effects. Their analysis shows that California’s pollution has adisproportionate effect on communities of color because of the way it functions as an economy.

Credit: Cultura Creative RF / Alamy Stock Photo

Environmental justice research usually consists of spatial analyses that are primarily focused on specific emission sources.2. Quantitative studies of environmental justice are primarily measures of the effect of a local polluter upon a neighboring neighbourhood or census tract.3. Census tracts are statistical subdivisions within a county that can be used for demographic comparison. A census tract can have a population of between 1,800 and 8,000, with an average population size of 4,000 people. Environmental activism focuses primarily on protesting the construction and operation of polluting industries within local communities.4. Pastor et. al.’s groundbreaking work5. In 2005, quantitative research was encouraged to develop a wider type of geographic analysis that included mobile sources. Bluhm and coworkers were aware of the unique circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 economic shut down, which allowed them expand the reach of their previous studies to examine the effects of pollution on the entire state.

Bluhm and his colleagues used the COVID-19-related California economic shutdown as a period for intervention to assess the impact of drastic emissions reductions on communities of color. As part of their evaluation of systemic racism and environmental injustice in California, they measured air quality pre- and after the shut down (January to April 2019 & 2020). They found that PM2.5 (particulate matter less than 2.5m) and NO (nitrogen dioxide) levels were the highest.2) emissions produced primarily by transportation and agricultural activity declined at a larger rate in Latinx and Asian communities than in wealthy white communities. This was surprising even though low-income residents, primarily Latinx communities drove more than those living in wealthy neighborhoods during the shutdown. Many of these people were likely frontline workers and were therefore responsible for higher levels transport emissions. They also discovered that while Latinx communities have lower incomes that Asian communities, both Latinx- and Asian communities had similar levels in terms of reduction. This lends weight to their conclusion about systemic racism. They did not find a similar reduction in pollution in Black communities. This could be because California has a smaller and more concentrated Black population, which is 7% compared to 39% Latinx and 16% Asian. However, it could also indicate that factors other than the in person economy, such current and historical biases in state policy, may be the primary cause of the pollution burden for Black communities. The authors conclude the reduction in air pollution for Latinx communities and Asian communities was not due to local factors. Despite local conditions, California’s entire economy has a significantly polluting effect on these communities.

The data used in this analysis were gathered from California Air Resources Board (CARB), air monitors. This network of monitors was established by the State of California. Purple Air Monitors are voluntary installations by citizen scientists. Satellite data were also collected to measure NO.2 levels. This unique combination of data allowed for the correction of possible biases due to the location of the monitors. While acknowledging shortcomings, the study raises awareness on the need for more care and mindfulness in monitor placements to produce more accurate air quality data in underserved communities.

Bluhm and his co-authors are bringing new methods to study air pollution. They will help us understand why and how it has adisproportionate effect on communities of colour. While the majority of attention is given to local environmental hazards, this research shows that the entire economy can have a significant and disproportionate impact on communities. It is clear that economic planning must be holistic and not only address the local issue of disproportionate pollution generation. It calls for a reassessment in the current regulatory framework of risk, cost and distributive impact.

The US Environmental Protection Agency is currently discussing changes that would improve environmental justice, including proposed strategies and measures that eliminate race from the identification of vulnerable communities.6. Bluhm and co-workers’ work provides a causal link between systemic racist behavior and pollution. This study clearly shows that policymakers who ignore race as a factor in identifying vulnerable communities will fail to effectively identify those communities and take the necessary steps to reduce pollution impact. Bluhm and colleagues have shown that while income disparity remains a strong indicator of environmental risk, race and ethnicity can be stronger determinants. These are striking findings that can only be made under the unique circumstances of the shutdown. This study demonstrates the importance of re-imagining a state economy that is focused on the equitable, broad reduction of pollutants. It also focuses on local environmental justice interventions. Based on their findings, the authors offer a useful equation that policymakers could use to balance the pollution’s impact, so that there are no disparities. Their model could improve cost-benefit analyses by providing a more thorough analysis of the disparate effects of environmental hazards while also acknowledging the importance of race and ethnicity. The California Bureau of Environmental Justice could use their model to increase its work. This would allow them to have a better understanding of the environmental hazards in California communities.

Refer to

  1. Bluhm, R. et al. Nat. Sustain. (2022).


    Google Scholar

  2. Mennis, J. Mennis, J. The Routledge Handbook of Environmental Justice (eds Holifield, R. et al.) 207221 (Routledge Taylor & Francis Group 2018).

  3. Chakraborty J. in The Routledge Handbook of Environmental Justice (eds Holifield, R. et al.) 175189 (Routledge Taylor & Francis Group 2018).

  4. Pellow, D. N. Am. Behav. Sci. 43, 581601 (2000).

    Google Scholar

  5. Pastor, M. Jr, Morello-Frosch, R. & Sadd, J. L. J. Urban Aff. 27, 127148 (2005).


    Google Scholar

  6. Friedman, L. White House takes aim environmental racism, but will not mention race. The New York Times (February 2022);

Refer to references

Information about the Author


Corresponding author

Dena Montague.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The author declares no competing interest

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Montague D. Systemic environmental racism exposed.
Nat Sustain (2022).

Download the citation

View Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.