(Thousands participate in a climate change awareness rally in Los Angeles, 2017. (Photo: Ringo Chiu/Zuma Wire)
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.”
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