Intersectionality – Kimberle Crenshaw coined this word in the 1980s. It describes a theory of how different forms of discrimination interact and impact an individual and their surrounding society. According to a NewStatesman article written in October of 2014, Crenshaw wanted to create a metaphor that anyone could use. Her use of the term was mainly connecting the racial inequality and gender inequality faced by black women.
Intersectionality has been used to connect many different inequalities besides race and gender. It has been used to connect racial inequality with marriage inequality and the violation of other LGBT rights. It has been used to connect income inequality with racial and gender inequalities. All of these connections stem from two things: systemic racism and the patriarchy.
But what would happen if we brought climate change into this conversation? Climate experts Joseph Copeland and Dr. Arthur DeGaetano, both affiliates of the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), conduct research on climate change and have both come to the conclusion that lower income families are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change; but how, exactly?
Copeland and DeGaetano agree that water poses the biggest threat to humanity in terms of climate change, but each focused on a different water-related threat in my interviews with them.
Dr. DeGaetano emphasized the threat of sea level rise. He explained that most people, along with a lot of big cities, are located on the coast. This includes lower income families and individuals who may not have the money to move.
DeGaetano stated, “Sea level rise is one of the most robust signals of climate change. Observations show this has been happening at an accelerating rate. We are pretty certain that sea levels will continue to rise, and the ocean has a lot of inertia. This means that it takes a long time for the ocean to reverse course, so even if we stop emitting greenhouse gases today, sea levels would continue to rise for hundreds of years.”
Mr. Copeland emphasized the threat of water scarcity and insecurity. He referenced Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which states that human beings need water, food and shelter to survive. He stated that the greatest source of this threat is the constant changing of weather patterns, which tampers with our clean drinking water.
Copeland shared that, according to an article published by the United Nations on water scarcity, around 700 million people would be impacted by water scarcity by the year 2030. This would impact our basic needs from Maslow’s Hierarchy.
The NOAA uses a model to enhance their research called the National Water Model, which stimulates observed and forecast stream flow, as a way to predict weather and climate impacts. The model collects data from all across the United States.
So how exactly does climate change impact marginalized communities compared to those more privileged? Well we know that most intersectional inequalities stem from systemic racism and the patriarchy, and that a lot of them relate to income inequality. From these intersectional inequalities, we get results such as the gender and racial pay gaps, which makes it harder for women and people of color to make as much money as white men.
Because of this, it is often women and communities of color, such as black, Latino, and indigenous communities who struggle more financially and therefore are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, because they often don’t have enough money to move further inland or to access clean drinking water. As climate change progresses this will only become more of a problem.
Many climate and environmental activists address and emphasize intersectionality in their work. One of these activists is Leah Thomas from California, who founded Intersectional Environmentalists (IE). This organization focuses not only on the struggles that marginalized communities face in terms of climate change, but also promotes sustainable living that is affordable for all, and incorporates cultural beauty and joy, as well as feminism as essential to their work.
Intersectionality is a lens that we can look through to see social patterns linking different inequalities, but looking through that lens can also help us find intersectional solutions. Solutions that work for all people and don’t leave out certain communities.
(Sophia Bosworth Viscuso is a Candor High School student – Class of 2021.)