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Frontline and Vulnerable Communities

By: Nataly E.

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Global warming affects everyone, but some populations are disproportionately affected. The Green New Deal, sponsored by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), touches on the topic of the certain communities that are heavily affected by climate change, labeled as the “frontline and vulnerable communities”.

The Green New Deal categorizes “indigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth” as communities most affected by climate change. These communities are where “systemic racial, regional, social, environmental, and economic injustices” have been made worse due to climate change, pollution, and environmental destruction. Although the issues within these communities are complex, the goal of this article is to break down how climate change creates problems within these frontline and vulnerable communities.

Indigenous Communities

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Since the beginning of western colonization, indigenous communities around the world have been oppressed and exploited. Many indigenous communities depend on their local environment and resources, and due to economic and social marginalization*, loss of land and resources, human rights violations, discrimination, and unemployment, they will struggle to maintain their way of life. One of the major issues that indigenous communities face is the Dakota Pipeline. This underground oil pipeline starts from the North-West corner of North Dakota and travels 1,200 miles South-East diagonally to southern Illinois in Pakota. Due to the natural placement of the oil reserves, the pipeline intrudes on sacred indigenous lands. Oil spills could contaminate the Missouri River, which is the main water supply of over 17 million people, in which 8,000 are tribal members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. According to the National Environmental Policy Act, local communities must be consulted in large infrastructure projects that will have a direct impact on their lives. The pipeline began construction despite objection by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and without the completion of an environmental impact study, which violated the law. Many Indigenous and environmentalists protested against the pipelines only to be attacked by guard dogs, silencing their voices when they were only speaking out for their rights. The Green New Deal states that the government would make sure that the consent of indigenous peoples would be obtained “for all decisions that affect indigenous peoples and their traditional territories”, respecting all their treaties and agreements with Indigenous peoples, and protecting and enforcing the power and land of Indigenous peoples.

Migrant Communities

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Unlike indigenous communities, who have the opportunity to protest, incoming immigrants do not have a voice. Because incoming immigrants are not citizens of the United States, they are usually put at the end of the list of important matters. Climate change is becoming a prominent indirect and direct factor that complicates other existing environmental and societal components that affect migrants, such as violence, poverty, and corruption. In the Northern Triangle (Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala), where the majority of Central American immigrants are from, there are “persistent droughts, fluctuating temperatures, and unpredictable rainfall” that reduce crop yields, making it difficult for people in that region to obtain access to food and agricultural jobs. This environmental justice issue not only plagues Central America, but other countries in Africa and the Middle East, where they are experiencing the worst droughts ever in recorded history.

Another issue heavily tormenting many areas of the world is war. The new weapons created for modern day warfare come at a cost. The amount of damage and pollution created by these innovations are grave. Petroleum based fuels are consumed at high rates through military vehicles, contaminating the air and water supply sources in the area. Furthermore, these fuels cause illness through the military ranks and citizens in the area, making it difficult to live a safe, healthy life. Due to these circumstances happening in foreign countries, many decide to move elsewhere, and because of the opportunities in the United States, many choose to start a life there.

In an attempt to reduce immigration by 50%, the Trump Administration enacted two monumental acts in 2017. One of these acts is called Reforming American Immigration for String employment (R.A.I.S.E) which installed a point system for green cards, making it difficult for those who are running away from dangers to get papers. The other act is an asylum ban that is still sadly in effect in 2020. The ban states that immigrants seeking protection from dangers in their home country must go to the countries in the Northern Triangle first and seek sanctuary there before they can even attempt to seek asylum in the U.S.

Those who manage to enter the country are new to the U.S and tend to take jobs in agriculture, construction, leisure and hospitality. Although these jobs may be easy to get, it is because they are paid low wages and require heavy labor, and these jobs aren’t always consistent. As of 2018, the median income average for an immigrant in the U.S is $31,900 for working a heavy labor job like construction compared to $33,706 for a person in the U.S who most likely works a retail job. Immigrants tend to make less than a person in the U.S even though an immigrant works longer hours and are doing more heavy labor.

Low-Income Communities

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Low-income communities consist of individuals who make an annual income of $47,248 or less in the United States, and constantly stress on how they will make ends meet. The jobs that the people from these communities hold are low-wage jobs, while some struggle to even find a job. Low paying jobs tend to be retail jobs such as cashiers, serving workers, and food preparation workers. Low-income families are not even able to afford their rent, let alone a college degree, which is why they are at a disadvantage in earning a better paying job. Earning a degree means not only spending money, but also time, which is something many families are not able to spare. Low-wage jobs rarely provide money for a person or a family to live a proper life. These people do not have access to medical care, housing, higher education, and even food. And because of these seemingly impossible walls, the arduous cycle of poverty is difficult to break. This is exactly why environmental justice cannot be achieved without social equity, which is why environmental policies must take these less fortunate individuals into account. The Green New Deal recognizes this, and strives to ensure a livable minimum wage and affordable health care, along with guaranteeing “adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations, and retirement security” to everyone. As for the issues with immigration, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, along with some of her colleagues, support immigration reform in order to make the process more reasonable and humane, and have been working for a path for citizenship for undocumented people in the U.S. The Green New Deal also states to ensure that the political process and laws implemented are inclusive to the frontline and vulnerable communities in order for those communities to lead the Green New Deal mobilization at a local level and to strengthen and enforce labor “workplace health and safety, antidiscrimmination, and wage and hour standards across all employers, industries, and sectors”.

The Green New Deal needs improvement, but the programs and ideas stated are a base for what could be an improvement for the lives of everyone, ensuring the protection of the ones who are taken advantage of- whether it be our precious Earth or communities on this planet. This is only the beginning of momentous change- and it is everyone’s decision as a community, as a country, as humans- whether that change is positive or negative.

*Marginalization: treatment of a person, group, or concept as insignificant or peripheral

Discussion Questions:

  • What are some possible ways to break the poverty cycle?

  • What can someone do to help a person from a frontline and vulnerable community?

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