Within the last year, the United States has been hit by horrific wildfires ravaging California, constant earthquakes pummeling Puerto Rico (which is still reeling from Hurricane Maria), and historic rainfall, flooding, and tornadoes tearing through states across the Midwest and the South, such as Missouri, Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Tennessee. For all intents and purposes, it is beyond fair for us all to concede that climate change is real and can be directly attributed to human activity, in particular corporate and U.S. military activities.
As we move into peak tornado season followed by peak hurricane season and peak fire season while potentially still sheltering-in-place from the coronavirus-19 (COVID-19) pandemic — which sounds like a whole lot just writing it out — it is vital that we consider how climate change will make infectious disease outbreaks more common and harder to fight. More importantly, it is time that we all go on the offensive to realize “climate justice” in the interest of protecting ourselves and our loved ones.
Anthropogenic, or human-made, climate change is a byproduct of capitalist industrialization and globalization that is driven by corporations in wealthy countries, such as the United States, and the Western world’s overreliance on industrial agriculture and fossil fuels, namely coal, oil, and gas. We know, now, that for decades American-based corporate entities knew about the pending negative impacts of climate change, but used public misinformation, government lobbying and international trade agreements to protect their ability to continue to pollute and deplete limited natural resources, displace indigenous and indigent populations, and promote overconsumption and generate profits rather than prioritize public health.
As one can imagine, given the United State’s foundational legacy of white supremacy and racial capitalism, Black people and our communities are among the most at risk. And, don’t think that degrees or more zeros on your paycheck will automatically save you. Race, not class, has repeatedly been shown to be the strongest predictor of whether someone will be overburdened by environmental pollution, climate disasters, and other hazards.
According to Adrienne Hollis, Ph.D., a Senior Climate Justice and Health Scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists, we should continue to be concerned about climate change as we deal with this pandemic given what we already know about the health impacts of climate change.
“We already know that African Americans are more likely to die from asthma and heart disease, which are exacerbated by warmer air temperatures,” Hollis tells ESSENCE. “And, the [Center for Disease Control] has identified that people, who have serious heart conditions, chronic lung disease or moderate-to-severe asthma, as high risk populations for [COVID-19]. So, we can see that the same groups of people at risk from COVID-19 are also at risk from the adverse health effects of climate change.”
Dr. Hollis is correct. By virtue of racist zoning laws and permitting/siting decisions, Black people, along with other people of color, are more likely to live by landfills, incinerators, sewage treatment facilities, recyclers, power plants and chemical industries, despite their income. We are three times more likely to be exposed to and die from air pollutants than our white counterparts. Black children are five times more likely to be poisoned by lead than white children, and Black parents are more likely to be exposed to hazardous chemicals found in plastics, such as bisphenol-A and phthalates, leading to smaller newborns and higher rates of infant mortality. We are twice as likely to lack complete or updated plumbing in our homes, and our communities often receive substandard sanitation services and drinking water quality.
To quote notable environmental justice scholar, Robert Bullard, Ph.D., Black communities are and will continue to be “hit first, worst and longest” by climate change without a dynamic shift in how our society operates. In addition to being trapped in close proximity to toxic environments, this climate onslaught on Black communities is due in large part to medical racism and longstanding health disparities for cancer, respiratory, neurological and cardiovascular diseases. By design, we also tend to live in geographically-vulnerable and under-resourced neighborhoods and cities that are least equipped to evade or address natural disasters, public health epidemics and other major emergencies.
But, what does climate change—and our risk to it—have to do with infectious diseases, similar to COVID-19? A lot more than you may think.
Scientists have demonstrated that there is a link between rising global temperatures and the spread of infectious diseases and other health ailments, like asthma. Roughly 75% of all new, emerging, or re-emerging diseases affecting humans can be traced back to wild animals, which are being displaced from their habitats by corporate and military-driven deforestation, underground wildlife markets, encroaching residential and commercial development, factory farms, and fracking — a drilling technique to extract oil and gas deep underground. (The origin of the COVID-19 outbreak has actually been traced back to wildlife trading in Wuhan, China.)
Some ancient viruses, once trapped in glaciers and permafrost, may likely be “awoken” as the ice melts near the Arctic and Antarctica due to climate change. Rising global temperatures and humidity have also shifted the life cycles and locations of disease-carrying insects, like mosquitoes and fleas, and may even encourage the natural selection of viruses, bacteria, and fungi that adapt to thrive in warmer climates and more readily infect humans.
And, I would be remiss to not also mention that climate change-induced flooding, fires, and famine have led to the rise of climate refugees around the world. These new migratory patterns will bring new human populations, who may carry but be immune to certain microbes, into contact with one another as people are forced to leave rural areas for urban centers and developing nations for wealthier ones in search of shelter, food, medicine and paid work.
In short, continued global warming and environmental degradation will make infectious disease epidemics more frequent and fierce.
Unfortunately, no U.S. president within the last few decades has made climate change a top priority, instead propping up dubious solutions, such as renewable natural gas and “clean coal,” to address our nation’s fossil fuel addiction. For example, prior to leaving office, President Obama along with Congress unfortunately lifted a 40-year ban on oil exports, which increased oil and gas extraction across the United States, making Texas and Louisiana top global exporters of oil and gas — a 21st century liquid “gold rush”.
And, over the past three years, the anti-science Trump administration has rolled back numerous environmental protections, disbanded scientific advisory panels and task forces (including a task force created by the Obama administration after the Ebola outbreak to prepare for the next pandemic), as well as scrubbed the mere mention of “climate change” from many federal websites. Just last week, the Trump-era Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) abruptly suspended its enforcement of a sweeping number of environmental laws and regulations, which will only encourage companies to pollute the air, soil, and water as much as they can before the rules go back into effect.
“We have witnessed the utter decimation of the environmental protections that did exist prior to this administration,” Hollis says. That is not to say that there are not federal workers, like at the EPA, that are doing their very best, but when you see the recent proposed changes to landmark laws, like the National Environmental Protection Act, that were submitted by the [Trump-era] Council on Environmental Quality, they are really detrimental to Black communities.”
While the future may seem bleak, however, our communities are resilient and defiant.
“Let’s be perfectly honest — all of the victories and changes that have taken place in frontline communities have come from the grassroots, Indigenous communities and other communities of color,” Martina Cartwright, board president of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS) tells ESSENCE. “Climate justice organizers and communities have been the biggest part of why we’ve had legislation at the local and state level, why we have had discussions at the federal level, and why the U.S. even ended up at [COP21 for] the Paris Accord on climate change.”
Climate justice describes a shift in climate advocacy from talking about polar bears and melting ice caps to focusing squarely on the low income and working class communities of color literally on the frontlines of pollution, sea level rise, and other climate disasters. Climate justice also requires naming the source of our pending ecological and public health catastrophe — the global capitalist political economy.
“Anything happening in Texas is happening because of the local level. You will have city and county governments take a position, on say plastic bags or fracking, and that has everything to do with the engagement of community members with their local officials, ensuring that their issues are front and center right now,” Cartwright explains.
“Juxtapose that with [Texas] Governor [Greg] Abbott and the Republican-led Texas Legislature, which has overreached and tried to pre-empt local progress. Still, community members persist and continue to educate themselves on the science, and become savvy in advancing their message with local officials and even state officials at the Texas Committee on Environmental Quality,” Cartwright continues. “For example, even though Texas is a world producer and exporter of oil and gas, we have also carved out a niche as a leader in renewable energy, and I would give a lot of the credit to the frontline communities and the local governments for these shifts.”
After organizing passionately for decades at the local and state level to push for holistic solutions grounded in climate justice, many of the ideas from frontline communities have finally bubbled up to the federal level, too.
One of the most popular proposals is the Green New Deal (GND), a multifaceted plan originally posed by the Green Party, then re-energized by the youth-led Sunrise Movement, and finally introduced into Congress by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) in early 2019.
The Green New Deal offers remedies to address the intertwined issues of economic inequality, labor abuses, and environmental and climate crisis. As an example, the GND calls for massive investments into renewable energy systems and sustainable manufacturing and agricultural practices to transition the United States quickly to 100% renewable energy and cut pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, while hiring and training millions of Americans.
Frontline communities, seeing that the Congressional-version of the Green New Deal did not lean enough into climate justice, have continued to build upon it.
For example, Indigenous people and communities, under the banner of the Red Nation, released the “Red Deal” late last year, which re-centers First Nations—and their knowledge—in the fight against climate change and explicitly calls for the end of fossil fuel consumption. Viewed as a supplement to the Green New Deal, their plan demands for the United States to move past reformism and political theater, and, through community organizing, mass mobilization and bold policy, finally rein in the main industries driving climate change.
The Red Nation also names Black abolitionists as an inspiration for the Red Deal, citing the links between mass incarceration and detention and climate change. They further note that police departments, prisons, and the U.S. military receive billions of taxpayer dollars annually while doing irreparable harm to Native Americans, Black people, and the Earth. Therefore, their plan calls for both the “divestment away from the criminalizing, caging, and harming of human beings AND divestment away from the exploitative and extractive violence of fossil fuels” to free up money that can be reinvested in our communities.
In the Gulf Coast region, which is the epicenter of the oil and gas boom, frontline communities have banded together to target the Green New Deal back down towards state governments.
Facilitated by the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy (GCCLP) over six months, frontline community members, organizers and racial justice and environmental organizations used the People’s Movement Assembly process to democratically generate the Gulf South for a Green New Deal Policy Platform. Signed by over 100 signatories, this suite of policy proposals is both an addendum to a Congressional-version of the Green New Deal, and aimed specifically at the states of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, which collectively would constitute the 5th largest economy in the world.
Among their demands, this multi-state coalition explicitly rejects free market-based approaches to climate resiliency and equity and offers their own set of robust, people-centered actions that community members and policymakers should undertake to “prioritize the needs and voices of those disproportionately harmed by our current social systems — Native Americans, Black people, other communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, low-income workers, women and femmes, the elderly, LGBTQ+ people, the unhoused, people with disabilities, youth, and people with criminal records.” And, although this proposal is focused on the Gulf Coast region, the GCCLP eloquently writes in the policy platform that “As goes the South, so goes the nation.”
As we all await the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, we should think collectively about the type of country we want to live in going forward. Returning back to normal, while living on a planet that is suffering from rising global temperatures and environmental degradation that will only make more COVID-19 situations possible, is just not feasible. Despite the common refrain that the barriers to climate change are a lack of money, bipartisan political squabbles and human nature, it is also high time to be honest that the true barrier is a capitalist economy and stewards of that economy willing to trade our grandparents for more natural resources and human labor.
And, more importantly, we should recognize that we already have the people power and the Green-Red New Deal blueprint needed to stop climate change and protect Black communities and Black life post-coronavirus. All we have to do is get organized and apply political pressure in states and across the nation to make it real.
“Find climate and environmental justice organizations near you and participate. You don’t have to be a technical expert to provide public comment and other input on an environmental issue that’s going to affect your life, but you better believe that your input is necessary right now,” Hollis tells ESSENCE. “And, go and talk to the people running for or already in an elected office. Don’t elect anyone into office unless you hear that their plan has actions in it to address [climate change]. If they are not talking about climate or environmental justice and vulnerable populations, then that’s not someone who you’re going to want in office. Because if those politicians don’t have your best interests at heart, then why in the world would you elect them?”
J. Ama Mantey, Ph.D., is a biomedical scientist, environmental justice policy professional and organizer based in Fort Worth, TX. A proud two-time HBCU alumna, she writes about the intersections of race, food, the environment and public health. Follow her on Twitter at @The_Black_Jane.
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