Climate Change, Environmental Justice, and Ethnic Disparity in the USA: The Mediators’ Role

Climate Change

Suggested Citation:

Singh, L. J. (2022, September 28). Climate change, environmental justice, and ethnic disparity in the USA: The mediators’ role [Conference presentation]. The 7th Annual International Conference on Ethnic and Religious Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding, Purchase, New York, United States.


Climate change is putting pressure on communities to rethink design and operations, particularly with regard to environmental disasters.  The negative impact of climate crisis on communities of color emphasizes the need for climate justice to minimize the devastating impact on these communities. Two terms are often used in conjunction with disproportionate environmental impact: environmental racism, and environmental justice.  Environmental racism is the disproportionate impact of climate change on people of color and those living in poverty.  Environmental justice is the response to address these disparities.  This paper focuses on the impact of climate change on ethnic populations, discusses current trends in the United States environmental justice policy, and explores the role of the mediator to help bridge the gap in conflicts that arise from the process. 

Ultimately, climate change will impact everyone.  However, its initial impact is disproportionately targeting African American, Hispanic, and poor communities.  This disproportionate impact is due to historical institutionalized practices such as redlining and other practices that have denied minorities access to resources. This has also decreased resilience within these communities to deal with the results of environmental disasters. Hurricane Katrina, for example, and its impact on communities in the South is an example of the disproportionate effects of climate disasters on communities of color. 

Additionally, evidence suggests that fragility is increasing in the USA as environmental disasters increase, particularly in less economically sound states. There are also rising concerns that this fragility may increase the potential for violent conflicts to arise. The more recent consequences of COVID19, its negative impact on communities of color, and an increase in violent incidents even directed towards religious institutions may signal that rising tensions may be an indirect result of the climate crisis.

What then will be the role of the mediator, and how can the mediator contribute to providing greater resilience within the framework of environmental justice? This paper addresses this question, and includes a discussion of potential steps mediators can take to help increase community resilience as well as some processes that can help reduce the ethnic tensions that are an indirect result of climate change.

Climate Impact in the USA

The evidence is stark that climate change is putting new stresses on our societies that may ultimately challenge our interior and exterior relationships. In fact, the speed at which the climate is changing in the world is exceeding any rate known in the history of the Earth. This rapid pace is creating pressures on the people who live in the USA and will continue to challenge economic and political policy for many generations. Without strong efforts to combat climate change, the devastation on the economic infrastructure will widen disenfranchisement of the poor and increase the negative impact of income disparity.

To summarize, the climate will continue to create changes in the environment in the whole of the United States over the next twenty to thirty years. Increasing droughts that cause fires will continue to escalate in areas like the West and Northwest. Changing weather patterns will herald in stronger storm fronts that cause hurricanes or tornadoes. In addition, changes in weather will also negatively affect the growth cycle of major food products such as corn, wheat, and soybeans. The greatest impact to the USA is expected to occur in the Midwest, particularly with regard to food production and security. 

According to the Environmental Pollution Agency (EPA) the Midwest will see increases in humidity and precipitation during the warm season that may erode soil and create favorable conditions for an increase in pests and pathogens. These conditions will not only affect the growing cycle but may also degrade the quality of stored grain. Productivity levels of crop yields may start to decline unless major technological advances are implemented. Although the warmer climate may have a longer warm season, the time for planting crops will not increase, but may decrease due to heavy rains and water saturated soil in the spring. In addition, the warmer winters and decrease in the relative daytime and nighttime temperature differences are favorable for the growth of pests and pathogens. These incidents are projected to decrease the yield outputs of agriculture in the Midwest to levels that have not been seen since the 1980s. Even if yields are able to increase, the substantial cost to maintain the output will be costly.[1]

Another important projection for climate in the United States are the impacts on health and wellbeing. The increase of natural disasters such as tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, fires, and droughts will negatively influence the well-being and emotional health of those effected.  Additionally, an increase in pathogens and diseases such as COVID may also cause not only physical health issues, but also psychological impacts from the need to isolate or the loss of loved ones who succumb to such diseases.[2]

Environmental Impact on Ethnic Communities

The potential for conflict to arise from the impact of climate change is great due to the stress of natural disasters as well as the proliferation of disease. The result is expected to be greater on minorities and ethnic groups, especially Native American groups who rely heavily on the environment. In a Minority Rights publication concerning indigenous people and climate change, John McGrath is reported as saying, “Minorities tend to live in the more marginal areas, exposed areas, that seem to be seeing more climate changes and are more susceptible to climate impacts because they have got less, and get less, from governments… It is a characteristic of all the studies that I have seen that the ethnic communities are the people who suffer most from climate impacts and are the most vulnerable.”[3] As this paper is being written, for example, river flooding caused damage to a water treatment plant in Jackson, Mississippi.  The impact has been greatest on minority residents of the city, particularly in the poor areas of Jackson.  The population of Jackson is 80% African American and although all segments of the population were affected, the minority ethnic groups have experienced the greatest impacts. In addition, Hispanic groups also report feeling greater impacts due to climate change. Additionally, immigrant groups may experience greater negative impacts of climate disasters due to linguistic isolation.

Key findings in a September 2021 EPA report found that black and African Americans will experience the negative effects of climate change more compared to all other demographic groups. Black and African Americans are more likely to live in areas with the highest projected increases in asthma due to air quality change and more likely to live in areas where temperatures will be most extreme. Hispanics, on the other hand, are more likely to participate in weather-exposed industries such as construction and agriculture. The reduction in the number of hours worked due to extreme weather will greatly reduce income for these populations. Additionally, traffic delays due to coastal flooding are more likely to impact Hispanics.[4]

In addition, the perception of distress about the climate is being reported by immigrant and Native American groups. Hispanic groups, particularly those who have immigrated to the US, perceive that climate change has an important impact in their local communities.[5] Many Hispanics have immigrated from areas due to the impact of climate change in their home countries. Reduction in access to resources like food and water have encouraged migration and immigration to places like the USA. Native Americans, on the other hand, due to their affiliation with the earth, have taken a lead in creating awareness about the impact to their lands and have been vocal in many regions about the negative impact of climate on their lands and their people.

Tribal nations rely on natural resources for their economic, subsistence and cultural needs.[6] Indigenous people in the US are known for having a close affinity for the land. Additionally, native people live in areas where the impact of climate change may be more devastating and severe.  For example, in the Pacific Northwest erosion is eating away at tribal lands. The Quileute people, who live on the edge of the Olympic Peninsula, are facing more frequent and intense storms, high winds that knock out electricity, and increased flooding. Often the single road that connects them to the outside becomes impassable.[7] In the Southwest the Navajo are subject to severe droughts and limited access to potable water. Finally, the Cherokee, who rely on farming, are finding heirloom crops more difficult to grow.

Islam and Winkel theorize that there is a linkage between increased inequality and climate change. They show that inequality also aggravates climate’s negative impact in the following ways:

  1. It increases exposure to climate hazards
  2. It increases susceptibility to damage caused by environmental hazards, and
  3. It decreases the ability to cope and recover from the damage.

Islam and Winkel refer to the above three channels of influence as multidimensional inequality.  They posit that climate hazards combined with multidimensional inequality creates a vicious cycle of greater exposure on one end and greater loss of income on the other. [8]

Environmental Racism and Ethnic Disparity

Environmental racism refers to environmental policies, practices, or directives that differentially affect or disadvantage (whether intentionally or unintentionally) individuals, groups, or communities based on race or color. Environmental racism is reinforced by institutions (legal, political, economic, or military) in a way that continues to disadvantage the above groups.

Environmental racism includes the placement or habitation of people in areas which are more likely to experience negative impacts from the environment, either from man-made issues such as pollution or from climate change. Ethnic disparity in climate change includes a wider range of individuals from wider differing ethnic groups and nationalities. Environmental racism combined with public policy further enhances the majority at the expense of minorities. Ethnic disparity in climate change in the US includes groups such as Native Americans, Hispanics, and non-English speaking immigrant groups.

Economic factors are important when discussing the uneven effects of climate change.  According to the American Public Health Association (APHA) poor living conditions, lack of access to political power, and pre-existing health conditions exacerbate the impact of climate change on African American communities.[9] That combined with the lack of representation of minority and ethnic communities in disaster relief planning creates a larger gap for ethnic and minority communities.

The three areas disproportionately affecting the African American population are:

  1. Air pollution. Air pollution creates risks to breathing as African Americans are more likely to live near highly polluting industrial areas and are more likely to have increased cancer risk due to their environment.
  2. Ocean acidification. Ocean acidification refers to the reduction of oxygen in the oceans that leads to increasing the acidity of the water. Acidification has a negative impact on wildlife that live in the oceans and therefore has a negative impact on communities that rely on fishing and other industries for their livelihood. Native Americans are most impacted by this, but other communities of color also heavily rely on fishing industries.
  3. Natural disasters. Natural disasters impact the poor more severely because they have less ability to avoid storms (as in hurricanes), or to find safer places to be in floods and wildfires. Hurricane Katrina is a prime example of how the African American community had the largest negative impact from the effects of the storm.

Increasing Fragility

Neither the degradation of the environment nor climate change can cause conflict directly. However, the competition for resources and destabilization from natural disasters can cause an increase in social tensions that put negative pressure on societal institutions and political infrastructure.  These destabilizing effects increase fissures in the social fabric and may increase conflict as a result. As climate change challenges the resources in the United States, the increased fragility that results may increase tensions. The Pew Research Center reports that Americans are seeing stronger societal conflicts than other advanced economies.[10] Although it is difficult to tie these reports directly to climate change, they may indirectly be encouraged by a perceived competition for resources due to climate change. In fact, the Center for American Progress (CAP) in a February 2021 report said that right wing pundits and political operatives over the past four years have been blaming immigrants for the environmental decline in the United States.[11] This is an example of how tensions are being created and encouraged from the degradation of the environment.

Although this paper is highlighting the existing and potential hazards for ethnic social tension within the United States, it is important to note that conflict arising from climate change is increasing tensions across borders internationally as well. The global rate of violent conflict has almost tripled since 2007. Researchers on climate change and risk point to environmental degradation and climate change as risk multipliers in many of the conflicts that are increasing across the globe. 

Ken Cloke writes, “As a result of climate change, economic crisis, political corruption, racial and religious intolerance, and economic inequity, significant numbers of people around the world are migrating, moving to greener pastures, and searching for better lives. As a consequence, economic resources have become strained, social divisions have deepened, political antagonisms have sharpened, and violence, hatred and intolerance have fractured once stable communities and alliances, escalating conflicts and bringing misery to many.”[12]

Role of the Mediator

Mediators, particularly those with backgrounds in ethnic and religious dispute resolution, are well positioned to partner in addressing needs relating to climate change disparity. In fact, organizations such as FEMA have already recognized the value of mediation as a means to address tensions during environmental disasters. As the incidence of natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods increase, mediators will increasingly be called upon to help manage the emotional impact on the population. Mediators help organizations have more effective conversations with the people who are impacted by disaster and destabilization by providing a safe format for them to express the deep emotions they are feeling through engaged and constructive conversations. 

Mediation is only one process that alternative dispute resolution professionals utilize to help people through crisis. Other processes include facilitation, civic engagement, and other listening processes. Facilitation helps groups have discussions about what has happened and may play an important role in the relief process. Civic engagement links civic leaders to their constituents to help them provide top down and bottom-up communication through all stages of a disaster, including preparation, staying safe, and dealing with the aftermath. Finally, listening helps leaders be more effective in addressing the needs of the people as well as aids planning in generating ideas, creating inclusiveness, finding common values, and determining paths forward.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also has utilized community mediation centers to help bring in the community when there is an environmental issue. They have used facilitated sessions to explain to the public when an environmental hazard is present and allow community members to express frustrations and concerns. This process has helped communities be more active in finding ways to resolve issues when they arise. In addition, the heavy emphasis on conflict resolution models like facilitated conversations and dialogue are instrumental in helping address instances of environmental injustice and help to spotlight disenfranchised voices.

Mediators and facilitators are often being recognized for their skills of listening. Having professionals present to be able to listen to the concerns of those impacted and to assure these concerns are shared provides a format for communication that is unique. The listening skills mediators bring in have been proven to decrease frustration amongst the people who are impacted by climate disasters, as well as the professionals who work in the field. 

Indirectly conducting mediation and facilitated dialogue also provides a voice for ethnic and minority populations who are affected. It provides an opportunity for them to have a place to express frustrations and concerns, and to suggest novel solutions. 

Examples of Mediation:

The Bridgeport Paiute Indian Colony in Northeastern California is a federally recognized Indian reservation. The community wanted to build a gas station, RV park and community center and sought to buy a parcel of land near the reservation. Residents in the area objected and sighted some environmental concerns with the project. The US Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution (USIECR) designed a mediation schedule. The mediation ended in an agreement with all the parties that allowed the reservation to go forward with the sale and helped all of the parties find a resolution that satisfied them all. 

Coeur d’Alene Lake had deposits on the bottom of the lake that threatened water purity. Part of the lake is owned by the local Native Americans and the rest is in the domain of Silver Valley, Idaho. The USIECR mediated with all the parties to create a Lake Management Plan to address pollution, while also respecting the rights and needs of all the stake holders in the plan.

The residents of Williams, Oregon filed a lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management over apple timber sales. After a long mediation process, 75% of the sale went forward, but 25% was left untouched. The residents had a voice in the final decision and felt empowered to have oversight over the town’s lumbering activities.

Examples of Facilitated Dialogue:

In Dayton, Ohio one of the small industries reported an environmental spill. A study of the hazard revealed that it could be mitigated by a series of processes on each basement or home in the area that included a device to allow gases to escape. There was no evidence to suggest that a significant impact would be made on the resident’s health as long as these processes could be implemented on all basement dwellings in the area. The EPA called for several facilitated conversations with the residents to inform them and to get permission to inspect and install devices on all basement dwellings. The residents had the opportunity to express their concerns and frustrations. Within a short time, access to all relevant buildings was granted and measures were made to secure resident’s health and safety.

In Montgomery County Ohio the Department of Energy operated a site often called the mound in Montgomery County. Historically the site had been the recipient of an experiment gone wrong that left the area with radioactive gas that led to the evacuation of nearly 200 residents. For years, the DOE struggled to clean up the site and to assure residents they were safe. Years later, in a cleanup effort to support the redevelopment of the site, community focus groups were created to include community voices in the redevelopment plan. The inclusive process helped the environmental engineers create a plan that included community input. The site was finally recovered in 2018 but continues to be watched by local residents.

Recommendations for Future Use of Mediation and/or Facilitation

Because climate change and conflict are compounding the effects and devastation within vulnerable populations, more care has to be taken to support and provide avenues to address inequality. The approach to addressing these issues is as complex as the issues themselves.  However, there is a role that professionals in the field of alternative dispute resolution can play.  This role is not only helpful in resolving direct disputes that arise, but also as a means to provide greater resiliency for disadvantaged populations. 

Here are a few recommendations for mediators:

  • Work with environmental agencies to provide direct listening to those who are experiencing environmental disasters
  • Provide mediation as needed when conflict appears
  • Provide advice and information to professionals on how to best address issues of conflict
  • Work to provide methods in which citizens and community members can have a greater voice in addressing climate change and climate impact.


As climate change increasingly accelerates in the physical environment as well as in the consciousness of the people, conflicts due to resource competition, impacts of natural disasters, and fear of the future may also accelerate. Climate conflicts increase the divisions already present in society, especially where there is continued injustice from the impact of climate change. Disparities must be addressed and reduced in order to mitigate the rising tensions as well as create a more equitable social fabric. Mediation can be utilized where conflict arises, but other methods such as facilitated dialogue can help reduce tensions and provide a format for more voices at the table.


Aidan Connaughton, “Americans see stronger societal conflicts than people in other advanced economies”, Pew Research Center, October 2021.

Alan E. Gross, Conflict Resolution in the Aftermath of the World Trade Center Attacks: A Family Mediation Program, 9 CARDOZO J. CONFLICT RESOL. 317 (2008); After 9/11 – Healing and Recovery, SAFEHORIZON,

Aneesh Patnaik, Jiahn Son, Alice Feng, Crystal Ade, “Racial disparities and climate change”, Princeton University, August 2020,

Bonnie Berkowitz and Adrian Blanco, “Mapping the strain on our water”, The Washington Post, August 2019.

Brookings Institution, New Orleans After the Storm, Washington, DC, Brookings Institution, October 2005; NAACP, Gulf Coast Advocacy Center, Opportunity Agenda and Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University, Housing in New Orleans: One Year After Katrina

Christopher Flavell, “Climate Change is Making Big Problems Bigger”, The New York Times, May 2021.

Christopher Flavell and Kalen Goodluck, “Dispossessed Again, Climate Change Hits Native Americans Especially Hard”, New York Times, June 27, 2021.

David Malakoff, “Climate change poses major threat to United States, new government report concludes”, Science Insider, Nov. 2018.


FP Insider, “Environment, Fragility, and Conflict”,

Jenny Rowland Shea and Sahir Doshi, “The Extremist Campaign to Blame Immigrants for U.S. Environmental Problems”, Center for American Progress (CAP), Feb. 2021.

Jessica Metoui, Returning to the Circle: The Reemergence of Traditional Dispute Resolution in Native American Communities, 2007 J. Disp. Resol. (2007) Available at:

Kelly Anne Smith, “How Communities of Color Are Hurt Most by Climate Change”, Forbes, June 2021.

Ken Cloke, “Let’s Talk: Charlie Hebdo, Immigration, Terror and Prejudice — Toward Proposal for Dialogue over Difficult and Dangerous Issues”,, June 2015.

Kenneth R. Feinberg, How Can ADR Alleviate Long-Standing Social Problems?

Linda Baron, Disaster Basics: The Life Cycle of a Disaster and the Role of Conflict Resolution Professionals.

Loren Mora and Mark Hugo Lopez, “Most U.S. Latinos say global climate change and other environmental issues impact their local communities, Pew Research Center, Oct. 4, 2021,

Mel Rubin, Disaster Mediation: Lessons in Conflict Coordination and Collaboration, 9 CARDOZO J. CONFLICT RESOL. 351 (2008)

Rachel Baird, “The Impact of Climate Change on Minorities and Indigenous Peoples, Minority Rights Group International, April 2008.

S. Nazrul Islam and John Winkel, Climate Change and Social Inequality, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, DESA Working Paper No. 152, Oct. 2017.

Salick, J. and Byg, A., Indigenous Peoples and Climate Change, report of a symposium held on 12–13 April 2007, Oxford, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

Stephen Mufson, Chris Mooney, Juliet Eilperin, and John Muyskens, “2° Beyond the Limit”, The Washington Post, August 2019.  Can be viewed at:

Wuebbles, D.,Fahey, D. W., and Hibbard, K. A. (2017), How will climate change affect the United States in decades to come?, Eos, 98 Published on 03 November 2017. Text © 2017. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

[1] EPA,


[3][3] Rachel Baird, “The Impact of Climate Change on Minorities and Indigenous Peoples, Minority Rights Group International, April 2008.

[4] EPA,

[5] Loren Mora and Mark Hugo Lopez, “Most U.S. Latinos say global climate change and other environmental issues impact their local communities, Pew Research Center, Oct. 4, 2021,

[6] EPA,

[7] Christopher Flavell and Kalen Goodluck, “Dispossessed Again, Climate Change Hits Native Americans Especially Hard”, New York Times, June 27, 2021

[8] S. Nazrul Islam and John Winkel, Climate Change and Social Inequality, Department of Economic and Social Affairs

[9] Kelly Anne Smith, “How Communities of Color Are Hurt Most by Climate Change”, Forbes, June 2021.

[10] Aidan Connaughton, “Americans see stronger societal conflicts than people in other advanced economies”, Pew Research Center, October 2021.

[11] Jenny Rowland Shea and Sahir Doshi, “The Extremist Campaign to Blame Immigrants for U.S. Environmental Problems”, Center for American Progress (CAP), Feb. 2021.

[12] Ken Cloke, “Let’s Talk: Charlie Hebdo, Immigration, Terror and Prejudice — Toward Proposal for Dialogue over Difficult and Dangerous Issues”,, June 2015.


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