The Intertwined Relationship Between Climate and Social Oppression

When thinking about racism and classism, we tend to imagine direct offenses against individuals because of their identities. However, oppression goes beyond “personal biases.” It is rooted in our economic system: the state protects some communities while others are left to die. The feminist theorist bell hooks has coined the term white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. It directly describes the interconnected institutionalization of the oppressive system in which we live.

We don’t live in a society where a king can decide to cut your head, but we certainly live in a society where the state can choose to let you die by not providing you with basic needs. One such basic need is natural spaces. Barely noticed decisions like redlining and zoning can lead to a lack of green spaces, especially for low-income groups and communities of color. Lack of shade and access to green spaces leads to the death of vulnerable people every year, so when discussing these issues, we need an intersectional perspective.

Several studies have shown that access to green spaces varies based on the communities who live in an area. Those with access to green space have shown decreases in diabetes, cardiovascular death, blood pressure and more. The philosopher Michel Foucault was not probably thinking of green spaces when theorizing on the current state-nation necropolitics (meaning the politics of death). Still, we can undoubtedly see how the politics of death are at the roots of our climate tragedy.

As we can see, climate change disproportionately affects the most vulnerable members of society. A large and important group of those affected includes formerly incarcerated individuals. Incarcerated folks have been sent far away from our range of visibility, and, therefore, they tend to be out of our moral consideration. Let’s see from an intersectional perspective how different oppressions intertwine when talking about incarceration and climate injustice.

Weather-related Inequality

According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, around 40 % of the San Diego incarcerated population was homeless when arrested in 2018. After release, the formerly incarcerated population has more significant barriers to accessing housing and jobs and is more likely to face food and housing insecurity. This population is then forced by job and housing inaccessibility to inhabit spaces more likely to suffer from natural disasters.

San Diego’s arid environment, lack of precipitation, temperature increases, and lack of green spaces have created the perfect conditions for theurban heat island effect.The IPCC Sixth Assessment Report defines this heating effect as how pavement, buildings, and other surface concentrations absorb and retain heat. The concrete that absorbs the heat during the day expels it at night, risking the lives of entire communities living in the affected areas while resting. In addition to being linked to heat-related illnesses, the urban heat island effect is associated with air pollution concentration and health conditions such as asthma. Not surprisingly, prisons like Richard J. Donovan Correctional and Centinela State Prison are in the middle of the desert.

In the U.S., most weather-related deaths are caused by heat waves. San Diego is subject to extreme heat events with temperatures exceeding 104. In the coming years, the city can expect an increased temperature o In the coming years, the city can expect an increased temperature of 3.5-5.5℉, affecting between 1 and 2 million people. Who do you think will be the first ones to be affected?

The Criminalization Behind Having a Home

San Diego has approximately 4800 unhoused citizens, most of whom are people of color. In 2020, Black people constituted more than half of the unhoused population while only making up 5.5% of the county’s population. This clearly shows how the community most affected by lack of shade and access to cooler spaces is impoverished people of color. Moreover, as the Vera Institute of Justice reports, Black people make up 6% of California residents, 20% of the jail population and 28% of the prison population.

In addition, the unhoused population in San Diego is anticipated to increase in the coming years. In 2022, the housing crisis in the city deepened, and it is likely to worsen in 2023 due to rent hikes. In California, over half of the renters are “rent burdened,” meaning they spend over 30% of their income on rent. On average, Black renters spend 53% of their income on rent in San Diego. Consequently, Black communities in San Diego are especially at risk for going unhoused, being more heavily incarcerated, suffering from heat waves, and not having access to natural spaces.

If this is not enough, during the summer of 2023, San Diego County banned unhoused camping. Those who live in the streets are vulnerable to enter the Prison Industrial Complex. Those who are arrested because of living in the street are not arrested because they are compromising “public safety” but because they are impoverished. And if they end up incarcerated, their risk for experiencing issues like the urban heat island only increase.

When incarcerated, people cannot access any natural environments.

Therefore, having a space to connect with nature can be a game changer for those entering the Prison Industrial Complex. First, natural environments are an essential space to heal the trauma of incarceration and climate injustice, while also allowing people some agency over the space they are forced to inhabit.

Community Garden to Fight Systemic Oppression

This is why with my Rachel Carson Council National Environmental Leadership Fellowship, I plan to work hand in hand with the California Institution for Women (CIW) and the non-profit project, the Prison Arts Collective, based at San Diego State University, where I study and work. We will create a community garden inside CIW and fight food insecurity, while building a community against environmental racism, climate injustice, and the lack of natural spaces for this vulnerable population.

Having the agency to choose what we plant in our community leads to self-sovereignty, agency over our land, and, therefore, climate justice. It will also be a space for the Prison Arts Collective to develop pedagogical workshops.

With small steps like providing a community garden inside a prison, we can begin to address the much larger issue of climate injustice from an intersectional perspective that helps us understand and oppose systemic oppression.


RCC National Environmental Leadership Fellow – Juana Eslava-Bejarano

Juana Eslava-Bejarano is a second-year master’s student at San Diego State University (SDSU) in Women’s Studies. They are passionate about environmental justice and its connections with reproductive justice, food justice, critical race theory, critical gender studies, and the animal rights movement. During their undergraduate studies, they co-led the Environmental Committee of the Student Council at La Universidad de Los Andes in Colombia.