Your Take: Climate Change Is a Civil Rights Issue

Jacqui Patterson
Jacqui Patterson

As we honor the 40th anniversary of Earth Day and pay homage to the gifts of air, water, land, flora, fauna and the rich diversity of the animal kingdom, we must acknowledge that not all of the earth's inhabitants have equal access to basic essential elements of life and well-being. Continued and progressive deprivation is a looming threat, in the form of climate change, to communities of color in the United States and countries predominated by people of color worldwide.

Climate change is a statistical change in the distribution of weather over time. One of these changes is global warming, which is the increase in the temperature of the earth's near-surface air and oceans. Climate change is driven primarily by emissions of carbon dioxide (through energy production via the burning of fossil fuels) and exacerbated by deforestation because forests play a key role in absorbing carbon dioxide.

Here is where the justice issues and civil rights violations begin to come into play. What makes the disproportionate impact of climate change on African Americans particularly unjust is that African Americans are least responsible for climate change because we produce relatively low emissions. African Americans on average emit 6,171 kilograms of carbon dioxide per person, a little over 20 percent less than white Americans and nearly 18 percent less than all Americans. Yet we are one of the most severely impacted groups.


At the same time, African Americans disproportionately ingest the polluting emissions that damage the earth in the short and long run, and directly contaminate our bodies, resulting in negative health effects such as asthma, lung cancer and other respiratory illnesses. In fact, studies show that race is the No. 1 indicator of placement of toxic facilities. African Americans are far more likely to live adjacent to a landfill, incinerator or coal-fired power plant than white Americans.

Recognizing these linkages, the NAACP has partnered with the Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative, the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization and climate justice activist Adrian Wilson to produce "Clearing the Air," a report that ranks American coal-fired power plants by proximity to people of color and low-income communities. As part of this effort, I have just wrapped up a 10-day Clearing the Air Road Tour, where I visited NAACP branches in the regions surrounding the 10 most-polluting power plants.

In communities like Jersey City, N.J., Cleveland, Ohio, and Hammond, Ind., people face astronomical rates of respiratory illnesses and multiple incidents of lung cancer among non-smokers. We heard stories of people whose property values have plummeted and who are now living in blight as the neighborhoods surrounding the plants have taken a downturn. One Chicago interviewee said, "I guess they think we won't fight, so they think it's fine to dump anything on us while they go home to Naperville [a wealthy suburb of Chicago]."

Pollution-related illness is one way we are negatively affected by the same forces that drive climate change. Climate change itself results in: rising sea levels, severe weather events, alterations in agricultural yields, melting glaciers/ice caps and species extinction. More often than not, communities of color bear the brunt of the impact:

— A study of the 15 largest U.S. cities found that climate change would increase heat-related deaths by at least 90 percent. African Americans are more likely to live in inner cities, which tend to be about 10 degrees warmer than non-urban areas. Heat-related deaths among African Americans occur at a 150-200 percent greater rate than for non-Hispanic whites.


— African Americans have a higher tendency to live in coastal areas which are disproportionately impacted by two climate change-related effects: increase in severe weather events (storms specifically) and sea level rise. These areas are more prone to vulnerability from severe storms (such as Hurricanes Katrina and Rita) with examples of impact being hundreds of lives lost and displacement of thousands of people. Regarding rising sea levels, residents of Thibodaux, La., expect to have to relocate within 10 years as the sea is increasingly taking over the land there.

— At 25.7 percent, African Americans experience food insecurity at much higher rates than the national average of 14.6 percent. Climate change affects food security through shifts in agricultural yields and due to inequitable "solutions" like biofuels, which result in lack of diversity in farming as farmers shift towards mono-cropping of corn for the production of ethanol.


— Climate change is driving up the cost of fuel which is impacting utilities and public services on which African Americans rely. African Americans, with greater dependence on public transportation, are being heavily affected by cuts in transportation, particularly in urban areas where we disproportionately reside, nationwide.  African Americans are also being disproportionately negatively affected by a rise in home energy costs and the overall financial crisis to the extent that Detroit, (a predominantly black city) saw record rates of death due to fire from people using jury-rigged means to heat their homes this past winter.

— Whether it is sea-level rise causing dislocation; severe storms taking homes, lives and communities; black children and families starving or sick from respiratory illnesses or exposure to carcinogenic toxins; children missing school or performing poorly due to resulting illness; or heat exposure resulting in illness or death; African-American communities are often starting from a place of substandard school systems, compromised access to quality health care, as well as job, housing or other vulnerability which makes facing these challenges even more impactful than they would be on a person or community with more resources and access to quality services.


As a most-affected community, African Americans must focus on re-envisioning the lives we want for ourselves and setting an agenda to achieve it; advancing local self-reliance (which means that our communities need to learn ways that we can rely on each other in living in ways that conserve resources and emphasize cooperation and community ownership), ensuring resilience so that we are ready to withstand the climate transition, and holding the resistance against forces, such as industries which have established operations in our communities and seek to profit without regard for our well-being as neighbors. As one of the Clearing the Air Road Tour interviewees said, "All we are asking is that they be good neighbors."

From those we have elected to office as decision makers and duty bearers, we must demand real reductions in emissions; representation in policy and program design, planning, implementation and evaluation processes; and reparations for what has been taken from us through the excesses of the many, through provision of resources; and preservation and upholding of our civil rights as constituents and our human rights as people.


We must seize the "green agenda" as our agenda. We must engage in the "green economy" and see it as our economy so that this is not yet another wave of change in which we are left scrounging for scraps. We must ensure that we, as those who stand to lose the most due to the excesses of the few, take up the mantle of leadership as well as wear the yoke of stewards of accountability on the part of all in preserving the sanctity of life-giving air and water, as well as the land and its fruits.

Jacqui Patterson is director of the NAACP's Climate Justice Initiative.

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