By Kadia Tubman
Exactly a year before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, the revered civil rights activist did something uncharacteristic. In a speech in New York City, he passionately denounced the Vietnam War and U.S. foreign policy. The man who championed voting rights for African-Americans and rallied the nation’s conscience to fight poverty and racial segregation had taken on a new cause.
King’s controversial “Beyond Vietnam” speech was denounced in the media; commentators said he “stepped out of his depth and threatened to undermine the movement by alienating his allies.” Even some African-American leaders said King should stay focused on civil rights, despite his argument that U.S. actions abroad were connected to oppression at home.
Today, many Democrats have embraced an issue that hasn’t traditionally been on the list of priorities for people of color: climate change. In 2018, a few months after President Trump called climate change “a hoax,” newly elected Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said during a climate change town-hall event that the Green New Deal, the ambitious environmental plan to cut the country’s carbon emissions by 50 percent by 2030, was “going to be the Great Society, the moonshot, the civil rights movement of our generation.”
Republicans in Congress called it “elitist.”
“I think we should not focus on the rich, wealthy elites who will look at this and go, ‘I love it because I’ve got big money in the bank. Everyone should do this. We should all sign on to it,’” said Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wis. “But if you’re a poor family, just trying to make ends meet, it’s a horrible idea.”
“This is not an elitist issue; this is a quality-of-life issue,” said Ocasio-Cortez, who recently raised the “legitimate question” of whether “it is OK to still have children considering climate change.”
“You want to tell people that their concern and their desire for clean air and clean water is elitist?” she said in response to Duffy. “Tell that to the kids in the South Bronx, who are suffering from the highest rates of childhood asthma in the country. Tell that to the families in Flint whose kids have their blood ascending in lead levels, their brains are damaged for the rest of their lives. Call them ‘elitist.’”
Ocasio-Cortez continued: “We talk about cost. We’re going to pay for this whether we pass a Green New Deal or not. Because as towns and cities go underwater, as wildfires ravage our communities, we are going to pay. And we’re either going to decide if we’re going to pay to react, or if we’re going to pay to be proactive.”
Last year, the world’s leading climate scientists released a report as a part of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), warning that the world has until 2030 to cut carbon pollution to avoid the worst effects of global warming, such as rising ocean levels and devastating storms. Some consequences are already being felt.
The debate has shifted in recent years; environmental issues, once the province of elites, are now seen as affecting all communities and classes. Among Democrats, at least, not to care about climate change is increasingly seen as a form of racism. Air and water pollution, increasing temperatures and extreme weather are a growing concern among people of color.
African-Americans and Latinos are showing higher rates of “climate awareness and concern” while reporting the “highest levels of personal and health effects from climate impacts,” according to a 2018 survey by ecoAmerica, supported by the MacArthur Foundation. “The NAACP also found that one’s race, more than class, is the primary indicator of vulnerability to environmentally-induced negative health outcomes,” the report said.
“In the past, relative elites controlled the narrative and really gave a false impression in terms of who was concerned about this and was actually impacted by it,” said Jacqueline Patterson, senior director of the NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program. “It really is a life-and-death situation for all of us, but for some communities more than others. And so it’s the very antithesis of an elitist situation, because communities of color, low-income communities, women and indigenous communities are actually disproportionately impacted.”
“Changing the narrative is going to be critical because before the narrative was so dominated by polar bears and melting ice caps and not something relating to people’s lived realities,” continued Patterson, “[For example,] after every single disaster that happens, there’s a significant uptake in violence against women. Both [women’s rights groups and climate activists] might not necessarily see climate change as a gender-justice issue until you actually help people to see those patterns.”
Even the Movement for Black Lives lists climate change as a concern for African-Americans, alongside issues such as health care and education. It argues that “Black people are amongst the most affected by climate change. If we’re not serious about reducing emissions, the planet will keep getting hotter and Black people will continue to bear the biggest brunt of climate change.”
On Monday, Earth Day, Democrats announced the formation of a U.S. Senate Environmental Justice Caucus, to be chaired by Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, Tom Carper of Delaware and Cory Booker of New Jersey.
The caucus will approach environmental issues with specific attention to race and class. “Oftentimes, black and brown communities are the ones that suffer the biggest consequences of pollution and a lack of enforcement on environmental issues,” said Duckworth in an interview with Yahoo News.
“Increasingly, you are hearing more and more people framing climate change as a civil rights issue or as an environmental-justice issue,” said James Marshall Shepherd, director of the Atmospheric Sciences Program at the University of Georgia. “[That’s because] marginalized populations including African-American and Hispanic and other disadvantaged communities will bear and are bearing the brunt of climate change impacts now and going forward, while at the same time have a very small carbon footprint.”
“But here is the challenge for African-Americans, Hispanic or even broader population,” continued Shepherd, who has previously posed the question of whether black people cared about climate change. “The way we have traditionally, as a scientific community, messaged climate change is that we’ve not messaged it as being about people’s kitchen-table issues, their lives right now, today. It always is projected as this thing off in the future.”
A decade ago, the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication reported how different communities view climate change. White Americans far outpaced African-American and nonwhite Hispanics in their awareness of the issue: While 66 percent of white Americans were “fully convinced of the reality and seriousness of climate change and were taking individual, consumer, and political action to address it,” only 11 percent of African-Americans and 15 percent of Hispanics were doing the same.
But within the past decade, leading civil rights organizations have taken up climate justice in their host of priorities. The NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program began in 2009 “because we saw a connection between issues like pollution and sea levels rising and the effect those are having on the health and wellbeing of African-American communities and lower-income communities.”
In its 2017 publication “Just Energy Policies and Practices Action Toolkit,” the NAACP crafted strategies for low-income communities to address environmental and climate-justice issues, pointing out that climate change disproportionately affects people of color. For instance, the fact that “people of color have historically been relegated to living in lower, flood-prone areas that are also vulnerable to flooding during extreme weather events and to sea level rise.” Or that “25% of the African-American population lives in the five Atlantic states most vulnerable to climate change.” Or that nearly one in two Latinos lives in counties with poor air quality, and their children are twice as likely to die from asthma as non-Latino whites, according to the American Public Health Association.
“African-Americans, Latinos,” Shepherd told Yahoo News, “they generally understand that like everything in society, when America catches a cold, we get a fever. Now what you have to do to really stimulate action is remove this notion that it’s something far off in the future, about some polar bear or butterfly somewhere. It’s actually about agriculture. It’s about national security. It’s about public health and health care. Things people care about every day.”
“African-Americans and the broader population are starting to pay a bit more attention to climate change because they see some of the things that are happening around them,” he continued. “When [they] look at what happened, for example, with Hurricane Harvey in Houston, look at Hurricane Katrina back in 2005, look at the faces that were most vulnerable. They were people that look like them.”
Shepherd added: “We don’t act until there’s a tragedy. There are still many black and poor populations and communities in Houston that still haven’t recovered. There still are communities in New Orleans that still haven’t recovered from Katrina in 2005.”
When asked if black Americans were more focused on social, criminal and economic justice than on climate change, Shepherd said, “You’re always going to have competing issues, but I guarantee you that almost every single one of those other issues that you could raise [as] important to black people, there’s a climate connection. Even criminal-justice reform, because studies show that violence and criminal activity increases as the temperature increases. If you talk about jobs and job access for African-Americans, well, one of the main solutions to climate change is a new economy, a decarbonized economy that moves jobs in places like solar and wind energy.”
“They definitely understand the severity of the issue,” said Alvaro Sanchez, environmental equity director at the Greenlining Institute, about the communities he works with to lessen the disparities of climate change. “But it’s hard to focus on that when there’s no food on the table, when you don’t have money for rent, when you don’t have health care, where your immigration status is precarious. There’s just so much more that’s more immediate.”
Sanchez’s organization is one of the organizers behind California’s Transformative Climate Communities (TCC) program, which he told Yahoo News addresses “climate change on a neighborhood scale.” The program provides resources to five disadvantaged communities to invest in neighborhood-scale sustainability projects, Sanchez said.
“It’s a catalytic investment essentially that transitions a polluted community into one that in the future will be more sustainable, healthier and will address community-identified needs,” he continued. “It requires a co-governance structure between government and community, so community input and participation in this process is really elevated. They’re not just aware of what’s happening. They’re actively engaged in decisions about how this money is being spent, what projects are going to be funded and how evaluation and performance are going to look like over the years. [Also,] there has to be a workforce development or economic-opportunity strategy for the people who live in that area.”
Sanchez added: “It also requires that the people that submit the application develop an anti-displacement strategy, because we know that if you make these investments you could have the unintended consequences of having to displace people and businesses and cultural institutions.”
Sanchez said California’s TCC program blazes a trail for the Green New Deal. “The umbrella of the Green New Deal is not just about the planet, it’s about our economy. It’s about how we live. It’s about our governance. It’s about how we make decisions about our future,” he said.
But one of the main issues with the Green New Deal was its hefty price tag. Republicans had estimated it would cost $93 trillion. Sanchez says that communities like South Los Angeles and Sacramento have been awarded grants “between $20 million all the way up to $70 million to invest in an area that’s no more than 5 square miles.”
Similar to California, New York passed a bill similar to the Green New Deal last week to set emissions caps for various types of buildings over 25,000 square feet, which include Trump Tower. Five years from now, landlords will be required to “retrofit buildings with new windows, heating systems and insulation that would cut emissions by 40% in 2030, and double the cuts by 2050.” The cost of these upgrades is an estimated $4 billion, according to the New York Times.
Although Trump has challenged the existence of climate change — and claimed that wind power turbines cause cancer — his top federal energy regulator recently said, “Climate change is real.”
“I believe man has an impact,” said the Trump-appointed chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Neil Chatterjee. “And I believe that we need to take steps to mitigate emissions urgently.”
As for fighting climate change on a federal level, Sanchez said he hopes “over the next few years that the Green New Deal is going to be more detailed about strategies to ensure that a call to action actually delivers something down the line that is going to address not only the climate crisis but the economic crisis, the housing crisis, the employment crisis and our democracy crisis that we’re seeing now.”
“We have to address this as though it’s a crisis, because it is, and everybody has to contribute the way that we’ve done in the past for things like wars,” added Sanchez. “We’re fighting the biggest war of our lifetime. It’s not a crisis that’s coming. It’s a crisis that’s here.”