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Honoring Asian American and Pacific Islander Environmentalists in the Face of the Climate Crisis

Navily Zhen

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. May is significant as it marks the arrival of the first Japanese immigrant to the United States on May 7, 1843. It also represents the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869, mostly worked on by Chinese immigrants. However, the first Asian immigrants arrived in the U.S. in 1587, when Filipinos began migrating to California. As we celebrate the contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to the United States, it is important to acknowledge and support AAPI environmental leaders and their contributions to the environmental movement.

Environmental activism also includes addressing the disproportionate impacts of environmental issues on the AAPI community. Environmental justice literature has seldom focused on the AAPI community. However, there are several instances in the history of environmental and social activism led by Asian-Pacific Islanders. In 1965, Larry Itliong, a Filipino-American labor activist, organized a strike of 2,000+ Filipino-American farmworkers. They fought for improved wages and working conditions, specifically the regulation of pesticides that harmed their health and the environment. In 1987, Charles Lee, a Chinese-American scientist, oversaw a study on toxic waste and race in the United States. This was the first study to uncover environmental racism at a national level. Lee led the First National People of Color Environmental Summit in Washington, D.C., in 1991, where 1,100 leaders of color formally established the environmental justice movement.

Due to the lack of recognition in environmental justice discourse and following the 1991 summit, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) was formed. APEN focuses on achieving environmental justice for Asian communities in America, particularly immigrants and refugees in California. Their work has largely focused on stopping big polluting industries, growing clean renewable energy for poor and working-class communities, advocating for affordable housing, building climate resilience, and encouraging Asian immigrants and refugees to vote.

Today, hazardous air pollutants that cause cancer are the leading causes of death for Asian Americans. Just 2 weeks ago, on April 29th, residents marched in Philadelphia’s Chinatown to protest against the construction of the 76ers arena in the neighborhood. Along with demolishing the cultural significance of Chinatown and the community it helped build, development also entails traffic congestion, air pollution, and noise pollution caused by construction. Another form of environmental injustice towards Asian immigrant communities is food consumption and production issues. As bodies of water are highly contaminated, fish now contain higher levels of mercury and other contaminants. Many Southeast Asian refugees who rely on fishing for food are now consuming contaminated fish, which can have detrimental health effects.

Asian-Pacific youth are now on the frontlines advocating for their communities in the environmental movement. 350 Pacific is a youth-led grassroots network fighting climate change and its effects on Pacific Islander communities. 350 Pacific has organized and facilitated workshops to educate and empower youth across 18 Pacific Island nations and diaspora communities in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. They specifically address and demand the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and pollution to protect the Pacific Islands' marine habitats and the culture of their people. Head of Regions for 350 Pacific, Fenton Lutunatabua, has a podcast where he shares stories of the lives of Pacific Islanders, emphasizing justice and service. Another influential Asian youth environmentalist is Varishini Prakash: the co-founder and executive director of Sunrise Movement, a youth-led organization advocating for political action on climate change through the Green New Deal. She was also an advisor to Joe Biden’s climate task force in 2020.

While we celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month this May, we are aiding the environmental justice movement by amplifying the voices of Asian-Pacific American activists. To have an inclusive movement, we must acknowledge and address the burdens faced by AAPI communities, specifically those that are climate change induced. Supporting and listening to Asian-Pacific environmentalists, especially current youth activists and movements left by youth, is a great start.


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