Cancer, Climate Change, and Systemic Racism
It can often be difficult to successfully realize the scope of global warming and climate change. It’s a very abstract concept that many are insulated and sheltered from. However the reality is that climate change exhibits most of its horrors on marginalized populations without significant international attention and political power. This idea is central to the topic of climate injustice and something many people don’t consider when looking at humanity’s impact on the world.
One of these marginalized communities is the so-called cancer alley. Louisiana’s infamous cancer alley is a stretch of petrochemical plants and chemical waste centers — stretching through predominantly black communities in Saint Johns Parish — that subject residents to cancer and deadly respiratory diseases. This industrialization of toxic chemical factories is an appalling example of the human injustices climate change and unchecked human industry bring about.
The problems of petrochemical pollution in the area have been ongoing for decades. Many people have already contracted cancer or illnesses, and many more have been forced to move from their homes due to inhospitable surroundings. Yet recent construction projects have continued to build larger and more polluting chemical plants and methanol complexes. Because of excessive and continued petrochemical production in the area the prospects for inhabitants in the cancer alley are grim.
Current estimates place the cancer risks and chemical pollution throughout the area at over fifteen times the Environmental Protection Agency’s acceptable level. It has even been estimated that at least one person in every household along cancer alley has contracted cancer or another serious illness due to pollution. This is largely due to the chemicals chloroprene and ethylene which are dumped disproportionately into the atmospheres of predominantly black parishes.
United Nations experts currently assert that new chemical production will foster severe environmental issues and disproportionately affect black communities. This is because marginalized communities are generally less insulated from climate change thanks to oppressed political power and economic means. Factories and large companies such as Formosa Plastics and Denka Performance Elastomers have significantly easier times building factories and releasing toxic chemicals into areas with less political power and visibility.
Consequently marginalized communities such as those all along cancer alley represent the perfect targets for these chemical companies. Many communities cannot even fight back once petrochemical companies have turned their homes into wastelands. One year ago multiple black protestors were arrested and forcibly jailed for protesting the atrocities committed by chemical companies in the area. This highlights the system that forces climate issues onto marginalized peoples and prevents them from fighting back.
So why hasn’t the government done anything? The unfortunate truth is that governments and large corporations seemingly don’t care about the people most brutalized by climate change. With hurricane season having recently come and gone government officials backed laws and regulations that allow chemical companies to release even more hazardous chemicals into the environment.
The practice of releasing gas into the atmosphere is called flaring. The United States government has given significant rights to petrochemical plants and oil companies to flare unwanted gas and chemicals even though data agrees it creates even more smog and air pollution than older methods of chemical waste dumping. Now thanks to emergency laws petrochemical plants have increased rights to dump unprocessed chemicals into the atmosphere through flaring, and citizens of Saint Johns are being further exposed to serious and highly dangerous chemical pollution.
Community organizations in cancer alley have risen to the occasion and joined forces with lawyers and environmental justice groups to combat petrochemical companies in the cancer alley area. Concerned Citizens of Saint John recently petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to prevent the imminent danger from toxic air pollution. Their petition won an improved investigation to gather data into the pollutants being emitted into the environment through petrochemical plants in cancer alley.
However change is essentially impossible without serious government intervention which corrupt agencies and government officials have blocked and pushed aside. Companies will never change their ways without financial or legal incentive and governments are generally failing to provide that. Consequently the biggest thing someone reading this can do is vote. Vote for politicians who have robust climate plans and genuine empathy for their constituents and the environment.
It is our job as humans and people in this modern time to combat climate change as best we can, to protect our future generations, to protect nature and all its glories, and to protect the marginalized communities across the globe who should never endure what the residents of cancer alley are being forced to live through. While cancer alley is finally receiving the attention it deserves, companies and governments elsewhere are committing similar atrocities on communities that haven’t the power to fight back.
Stopping these corporations means pushing our government to stop climate change and help these marginalized communities. Citizens of wealthy countries need to set aside political differences and vote for officials that actually care. The lives of people in communities such as cancer alley depend on it, and soon everyone else’s will too.