There is a climate crisis. Whether or not it is acknowledged, the climate crisis prevails past the minimal efforts that governments have been enforcing to legitimize the awareness surrounding the drastic climate change. Yet when it comes to the general public, it has become abnormally normalized how dangerous our environmental endeavors are breaching. We look at the conversations surrounding public concerns. Our main ideas of justice surround carceral systems and the inner workings of the police, rarely ever environmental justice. While the increase in climate change itself is alarming, it is often ignored due to the fact that people choose to focus primarily on criminal occurrences when talking about justice. What this lack of conversation fails to realize is the distinguished connection between environmental justice and criminal justice. Climate change and crime are more connected than many think, as environmental justice factors tend to play a big role in the prevalence of crime and fair persecution in neighborhoods. The substantial ways in which climate change impacts the criminal and carceral systems revolve around the effect it has on the occurrence of the crime itself, unsafe conditions that incarcerated individuals are exposed to, and the disproportionate effects it may have on minority neighborhoods in relation to both environmental and criminal justice.
Despite common belief, it has been studied how much of an impact the climate has on criminal occurrence. An important way in which climate impacts crime would be how the higher the climate, and the hotter it gets- the more aggressive crimes are committed. The environment can harbor the agitation and aggression that can push someone to commit a crime. Of course, this is not to say that people will commit crimes for the sole reason of it being hot outside, but the heat itself will harbor harsher reactions and aggressive actions. In January 2023, a study was published observing the amount of petty crime committed in comparison to the climates of these studied areas. It was found that in Chicago (the area observed), higher ambient temperatures were associated with crime risks because "High temperatures increase the anger and hostility psychologically, decrease the alertness and energy, and increase the aggression and violence" (Hou et al., 2023). Heated environments create more aggressiveness while simultaneously causing people to be less alert. This will then not only create more aggressive reactions and actions taking place, resulting in crimes occurring, but it will increase the risk of victimization due to how individuals will be less aware of their environment. The reason why this data shows applicable concern is due to the fact that it isn't just Chicago that has been experiencing higher temperatures.
With the way in which the Earth has been increasing in temperature overall, across the globe, we are seeing more drastic changes in climate- whether it be experienced in weather disasters or increased climate. This will then only prompt more of an aggressive environment everywhere, which will subsequently factor into an increase in crime. The increase in crime becomes so likely that due to climate change, the journal "Crime, Weather, and Climate Change" written by Matthew Ranson in 2012, stated that "Under the IPCC's [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] A1B Climate scenario, the United States will experience an additional 35,000 murders, 216,000 cases of rape, 1.6 million aggravated assaults, [and] 409,000 robberies…compared to the total number of offenses that would have occurred between the years of 2012 and 2099 in the absence of climate change. "(Ranson, 2012).
Aside from the increase in crime itself, as matters worse, we will begin to see defense regarding criminal action also change- as people may commit crimes due to the matter of their environment or being forced into crime due to not having the proper resources available due to unforeseen environmental conditions. This change in the carceral process also transitions our concerns to those who have already been incarcerated for a crime and how they will be impacted by climate change.
Although prisons themselves are not famous for their hospitality and comfortable nature, matters will only increasingly deteriorate as the increase in climate change effects cause prisons to be even more unsafe and under-resourced. With the increase in climate, "Heat index temperatures have been logged at higher than 150°F inside prisons," which endangers not only those who are health compromised in prisons in the first place but also "People in solitary confinement, forced outdoors, coerced to work, and [individuals] in transit to court or prison" (Golembeski, 2022). When being forced into cells where you are unable to leave, a lack of proper heat moderation can be deadly, especially given the schedules of prisons often requiring undesired and hard labor. Yet not only is it the heat increase with climate change that has turned up to be problematic for incarcerated individuals. With the climate crisis, there's also the increase of natural disasters, beckoning calls from weather destruction and unsafe occurrences such as disasters, hurricanes, and droughts. In the article "Climate Change and the Criminal Justice System' by Sierra Garcia, it is discussed how prisons have often failed to evacuate prisoners (Garcia, 2021), while an article by Leah Wang titled "Prisons are a daily environmental injustice" discusses how prisoners are often forced to exposure of contaminated air and water, both to drink and breathe in daily (Wang, 2022). In both articles, there is a demand for safety not being met as incarcerated individuals are both exposed to the harsh natural disasters and the issues they bring, as well as the contamination of the scarce resources they actually have suitable access.
In fact, Wang's article states, "Testing showed dangerous levels of manganese, which can lead to neurological disorders. Meanwhile, a Texas facility was providing water with elevated levels of arsenic for ten years before the courts got involved, and an Arizona prison's water, smelling foul and causing rashes, tested positive for a "petroleum product" (Wang, 2022). When it comes to unsafe practices that are damaging our planet, there has been a constant consequence of endangering the lives of those who have been imprisoned without lawmakers and state officials batting an eye. It's often seen the lack of care towards the well-being of the incarcerated taken into consideration due to people often having a 'do the crime, do time' mentality regarding the harsh conditions of prisons, yet many conversations discussing these issues often leave out the lack of proper social infrastructures that can lead people to commit crimes, such as the prevalence of poverty and homelessness as well as the lack of funding in educational opportunities and social work accessibility. Similarly enough, these same issues factored in with environmental injustices in minority-dominated neighborhoods also connect the occurrence of crime and climate change.
In the United States especially, we see minority-dominated neighborhoods, including black communities, overrepresented in both criminal justice and environmental injustice statistics. Regarding environmental injustices, it was explained by Justine Calma in her article, "When Criminal Justice and Environmental Justice Collide," that "Black people are 75 percent more likely than other Americans to live in neighborhoods that border oil and natural gas refineries– and they face a disproportionate amount of health threats as a result of air pollution (Calma, 2018). Disproportionate health threats also face the misrepresentation of these same communities when it comes to the resources they require and the lack of accessibility they have to these resources. Yet how is this considered to be related to criminal injustice, one may wonder. Well specified in this same article by Calma tells of a community's experience without the leadership of the advocate Siwatu-Salama Ra who routinely speaks up at rallies against environmental injustice. After a dispute, she was incarcerated despite reacting out of self-defense. Due to this, the community that Ra would represent had been stripped from a voice in their environmental issues and had become victims to the unfair carceral rulings that affect communities of color.
Both of these issues intertwined as they both systematically create conflict surrounding this community's efforts to advocate for themselves. For a community that is often being unheard and neglected, it's essential for the rallying and representation in fair democratic lobbying to occur- so to be deprived of an essential individual who speaks up for your community can be detrimental. Although this article focuses on Ra's experience, it wouldn't be uncommon for many other individuals like her to be disproportionately impacted by both injustices revolving around the carceral and environmental infrastructures in place in America. With the lack of representation and ability to speak out, these systemic issues will further persist to impact minority groups which can lead to future incarceration of individuals and a bad path for the future youth residing within these communities. Paired with disproportionately being targeted by hyperincarceration and environmental health concerns, and climate disasters, these communities are being targeted and set up for failure.
From the way crime and climate interact in regard to the occurrence of crime, how incarcerated individuals are put in harm's way, and how minority groups are being disproportionately impacted by it– the only question really left to ask would be why this conversation about said topics isn't being discussed. Why do we continue to ignore how the environment changing is negatively impacting the carceral system as we know it?
To this, I think the answer, unlike the rest of this conversation, is simple: We are afraid.
With the number of issues being discussed, the future may appear bleak, and the impression that 'nothing can stop this' may root itself within the minds of those facing our current state of environmental affairs. It's scary. It may feel that an environmental 'doomsday' is bound to happen, causing many, when looking upon environmental injustice, to turn a blind eye because they think that they themselves can't change anything. To a certain degree, it is true that the climate crisis being faced has gotten out of hand– plastic and oil contamination has become normalized, while big corporations tend to 'take shortcuts' to monetize off capitalistic approaches to 'efficiency' while harming the planet without consumer knowledge. Yet just because natural disasters are within the confines of forces we simply can't control, it does not mean our impact on the planet is small. Just like the approach to criminal justice and hyper-incarceration, we have a systemic issue that needs to be addressed as it impacts our communities and those residing within them. And like how we approach criminal injustice, we can still do our research on environmental advocacy to educate ourselves and those around us. A difference can be made in the same way we would make legislative changes in our prison carceral systems. Lobbying to bring these concerns to Congress is still a viable option, as well as taking part in environmental care activities such as efforts to pick up trash, funding earth-friendly alternatives when shopping, and more. Although it may feel like efforts will go to waste, change still can happen- and it can start anywhere and anytime, even if it's with a conversation that sparks today.
Calma, J. (2021, April 1). When criminal justice and environmental justice collide. Grist.
Retrieved April 1, 2023, from https://grist.org/article/when-criminal-justice-and-environmental-justice-collide/
Garcia, S. (2021, September 24). Climate change and the criminal justice system - JSTOR
DAILY. https://daily.jstor.org. Retrieved April 1, 2023, from https://daily.jstor.org/climate-change-criminal-justice-system/
Hou, K., Zhang, L., Xu, X., Yang, F., Chen, B., Hu, W., & Shu, R. (2023). High ambient
temperatures are associated with Urban Crime Risk in Chicago. Science of The Total Environment, 856, 158846. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2022.158846
Ranson, M. (2012). Crime, weather, and climate change. SSRN Electronic Journal.
Wang, L. (n.d.). Prisons are a daily environmental injustice. Prison Policy Initiative. Retrieved
April 1, 2023, from https://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2022/04/20/environmental_injustice/