Just Breathe

wildfire smoke and climate justice

(previously published in the Climate Psychology Alliance – North America blog)

It is November of 2018, and I stare out the window of my office, watching a giant, dark gray cloud descend from the northeast. Soon, the familiar scent of smoke is creeping through the cracks in the door frame; the world outside is enveloped in a dull and muted hue. This is all too familiar to my body. One year prior, the Tubbs fire brought air like this, along with the terror and devastation of urban wildfire. Beneath a sky much like this one, whole communities burned to the ground. 

This time, the authorities reassure us, there is no local fire. This smoke is from the Camp fire in Paradise, hundreds of miles away. There is no local fire, we repeat in flurries of texts to friends and family. The relief I feel is overlaid with terror and guilt. The entire town of Paradise is burning, reports trickle in of people dying in their cars as they race to flee the hills. The particles we are breathing were once their most precious belongings, their beloved pets, their bodies… Yet that reality barely registers in my own survival brain, which is entirely focused on the stress of breathing smoke.

By the time 2018 comes to an end, I have become a master at controlling the air quality I can reach. I have hepa filters for every room of the house and office. I rely on Purple Air to tell me when to go outside. I adapt to matching my felt experience with the realtime information – an AQI below 100 feels ok, above starts to hurt, and I retreat to my protected indoors – to the blessing and privilege of my well insulated house.

This summer, so many people around the nation are getting first hand experience of the impact smoke inhalation has on the body. That constant pressure in the chest, the nose and throat pain, the nausea, the heart-racing stress that cannot be quelled by a deep calming breath…

It took weeks of wildfire smoke, two years in a row, for me to register viscerally that there are people experiencing this horrifying, helpless feeling all of the time. Mostly poor people, mostly BIPOC people, mostly people who have been forced by redlining into neighborhoods surrounded by freeways and speckled with polluting industries. BIPOC people make up 41% of the total US population, but are 73% of the residents in counties with the worst air pollution. And county statistics only hint at the truth, because air pollution is often extremely localized. 

This information isn’t new to me, I first learned it as an adolescent, in the early 1990s. I was president of my high school environmental club, and we participated in the campaign to fix the North River Sewage Treatment Plant in Harlem. 

A few facts about the North River Sewage Treatment Plant: 

  • It was originally slated to be built on the Upper West Side (where Trump tower now stands) That site was rejected, in part “due to community resistance.” At the time of completion, the original neighborhood was 80% white, with an average household income 5x that of households at the new site, which was 61% black.
  • West Harlem is, from an engineering perspective, a poor choice for a sewage treatment plant. It is uphill from most of the city, requiring excess spending on pumps to carry the sewage.
  • The plant was poorly constructed, and began gushing toxic fumes into the neighborhood as soon as it opened. People within a 35-block radius could not open their windows, especially in the summer months. It also spews diesel exhaust. Rates of asthma and death from respiratory disease, already high in that neighborhood, skyrocketed.
  • It took 8 years for the city to respond to community demands and address the design flaw causing the odor problems. The fix reduced the odor by about 75% but did not significantly reduce the rates of respiratory illness.
  • As a concession to the community, the city built Riverbank State Park on the roof of the sewage treatment plant, overlooking the river.
Riverbank State Park: wikimedia commons

In the years that followed, I could not pass Riverbank State Park without experiencing a mingled, confusing range of emotions – sadness, rage, denial. Something I could not name felt so wrong about it all. A beautiful, state of the art facility featuring an olympic swimming pool, a skating rink, a theater and a carousel. By far the most amenities of any park in Harlem. A lovley place to take children and play…

… Located directly on top of the very sewage treatment plant that was actively poisoning the children.

The North River Sewage Treatment Plant was the last urban environmental justice action I would engage in for a very long time. It helped catalyze my decision to flee as far from city life as I could. The effort to keep the bad air and water of urban areas from getting worse, and the resultant “win,” were profoundly depressing to me. I wanted instead to be part of the effort to keep pristine, healthy ecosystems alive and well, to sustain the beauty and glory that remained of the more-than-human, before it was damaged seemingly beyond repair.

When I first joined actions to protect the remaining old growth redwoods, in my new home in far northern California, I did notice the racial makeup of the activists. I was aware that I had left the teeming diversity of the city for a very white locale. It bugged me in a similar confusing, nondescript, and easily deniable way that Riverbank State Park bugged me. I knew that I had the social freedom and financial safetynet to choose where I wanted to live, and that many others did not. I just did not know what to do with that fact. So I shelved it, for decades.

“ If you don’t have to think about things like where your gas comes from or how it’s made, that’s a privilege.”

— Colette Pichon Battle

I have always considered myself a progressive person – raised in a community of liberal Jews, I was often the most radical in the room. I have always considered myself a highly empathic person – it is the defining feature of my chosen profession, psychotherapy. I wish I could say the outcome of my first experiences with wildfire smoke was a complete and immediate leap back into climate justice work. It was not.

Those were my climate-dark-night-of-the-soul years. Between annual local fires, rapidly worsening IPCC reports, and a climate denier president actively reworking the judicial branch to his will… I was lost in my own anxiety response. And it included a linear, either-or analysis of the intersection of climate and social justice that went something like this:

“I understand that there are many people far more marginalized than I, who are fighting just to survive in the present moment. I know that this is necessary, but it is keeping them from turning their energy where it is most needed – to prevent the climate crisis that will ultimately threaten us all.”

In other words, I knew enough not to blame those of less privilege for not appearing to share my priorities. But I still believed the solution would ultimately require them – BIPOC people focused on the struggle against racism, environmental and otherwise – to come towards us – white people with the privilege to focus exclusively on climate action. 

Here are a few of the fallacies in my old way of thinking:

  1. That we must prioritize and sequence our activism. This broken culture is made of an extremely complex set of systems, and complex systems do not change in a linear fashion. Climate change and racial / social injustice are symptoms of the same distorted power dynamics. The work to change them is a perpetually entwined both-and, demanding our attention equally and simultaneously. 
  2. That it is the responsibility of those of less privilege to embrace the perspective of those with more. While there is value in all of our perspectives, our mutual survival depends on upending the current power dynamics, and looking critically at where we hold responsibility. More privilege means more freedom of movement, which means more responsibility to move towards those experiencing greater marginalization. 
  3. That BIPOC people are less likely to view climate change as a priority. In fact, a 2020 study by Yale University confirmed that 57% of black people and 69% of Latinx people are concerned or alarmed about climate, compared to just 49% of white people.

There are a lot of hypotheses right now about why the myth persists that climate anxiety, and climate action, are a white person’s purview. It likely has much to do with how the terms are defined, and who is asking the questions. But the Yale data makes intuitive sense. BIPOC and other marginalized communities are most likely to be experiencing not only the current effects of climate change, but all the other health impacts of fossil fuels – due to their proximity to extraction sites, industrial processing plants, and freeways.

I walk a delicate balance as I seek to take responsibility for my own errors in thinking, without overly blaming or shaming myself. I find myself continuously removing layers of bias that I wasn’t previously aware existed. The culture conspires to blind those of us with more privilege to the pain of those with less. The nearby, human inhabitants of fossil industry sacrifice zones, are more invisible in climate literature than the distant arctic polar bears. I was, until recently, fully supported in my misinterpretations about climate justice, by even the most progressive circles of white culture.

My understanding of climate justice shifted dramatically when I began to engage in antiracist learning in earnest. It was punctuated by a moment of profound revelation while listening to the “Black Lives Matter and the Climate” episode of the How to Save a Planet podcast. In addition to their honest and open conversation about racism in the climate movement, co-hosts Dr Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Alex Blumberg interviewed Colette Pichon Battle about her work with the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy

Communities in the gulf coast were among the earliest climate canaries, battered nearly beyond repair by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. They also have been fossil fuel sacrifice zones for decades; infamously labled Cancer Alley because of the well-known impacts of the countless oil refineries that line the Interstate 10.

It is the same fossil fuel economy, maintained by the same power players – posioning the communities of Cancer Alley, ravaging the coast with hurricanes, burning Paradise to the ground with wildfire, quietly moving the North River Sewage Treatment Plant to Harlem and then ignoring the consequences. The fight for survival right now, and the fight for a livable future are the same fight.

As Collete Pichon Battle says: “Many of us are privileged enough to never have to see how poisoned communities are, and many of us never have to read the facts that those communities near refineries are black and poor… Privilege is not a judgment statement, it’s a factual statement… If you don’t have to think about things like where your gas comes from or how it’s made, that’s a privilege.”

It is a privilege to breathe clean air most of the time. It is easy to forget both the profound embodied horror of losing that privilege, and the fact that so many never have it. But never before has it been more clear that we are all in this together. May our incredible community of passionate and compassionate colleagues hold each other accountable to remember. As Dr Johnson says, “our racial inequality crisis is deeply intertwined with our climate crisis. And that if we don’t work on both, we’re actually not going to succeed at either.” There is so much work to be done. May we continue to rise to meet the moment together. 


For more information on climate justice and mental health, check out the intersectionality page of the CPA-NA website.

Climate Justice

The best way to learn more about the climate justice movement is to find the local organizations doing amazing work in your own community, and see how you can support them. 

Also, here’s a few of my current favorite organizatons: 

Mycellium Youth Network

NDN Collective

Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy


Here’s a few of my current favorite antiracism books:

How to be an Antiracist

My Grandmother’s Hands

Between the World and Me


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *