Geopolitics of Climate Change—A Civil Rights Perspective

February 29, 2016 / By JACQUELINE PATTERSON

Remarks Given at University of California, Santa Cruz—2/27/2016

It is apt that this convening would have a session on the “Geopolitics of Climate Change” because the distribution of effects of the drivers and impacts across the climate change continuum are both geographically based and politically rooted.

Studies show that zip code is the number one predictor of environmental health. Evidence also shows that the most significant determinant of which zip codes will host toxic facilities is race.

An African American family making $50-$60,000 per year is more likely to live next to a toxic facility than a White American family making $10-$15,000 per year. One example of these toxic facilities is the thousands of coal fired power plants that are the number one contributor to the carbon dioxide emissions that drive climate change. Over 78% of African Americans live within a 30-mile radius of coal fired power plants, which also emit sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury, arsenic, and lead.  And 71% of African Americans live in counties in violation of EPA air quality standards.

Communities of color and low income communities are more likely to live near multiple sources of greenhouse gases. They often call these pollution-burdened communities “sacrifice zones” because the communities that are host to coal plants, cement factories, paper mills, oil refineries, animal farms, nuclear reactors, road traffic, and more, sacrifice the health, wellbeing, and often the very lives of their residents so the nation can waste 80% of the energy it generates, drive big cars, eat kiwi fruit year round, eat burgers and bacon every day, and more.

Further along the climate change continuum, we have communities that are sacrificed for society’s excesses through the impacts of climate change, including Kivalina Island, Alaska; Thibodaux, Louisiana; the Gullah Geechee Nation in South Carolina; and the nation of The Maldives Islands, each of which are facing imminent displacement, within 15 years, due to sea level rise. These sacrificed places include communities from Gulfport, Mississippi, to Myanmar, each experiencing loss of lives and livelihoods due to disasters. And these places also include already food insecure communities, from Jersey City to the Horn of Africa, whose access to food is further threatened by shifts in agricultural yields resulting from climate change.

Meanwhile corporate interests take the profits from the same polluting practices to suppress laws that will safeguard environmental health, as well as policies that will advance a more energy efficient, clean energy transition that would stem the tide of climate change.

Bound by darker hued skin, political disenfranchisement, and disproportionate impact, nations in the Global South and communities of color in the global north, sometimes calling ourselves “the south within the north”…… these communities and nations share common cause against the moneyed goliaths of the world.

Last night over dinner, someone asked me, with overtones of bemusement, why the NAACP would be working on climate change. My response was that for a civil rights organization with a mandate to advocate on the behalf of the oft-voiceless, the reasons, in the form of politically disenfranchised nations, marginalized communities, fractured families, and lost and damaged lives, are innumerable!

  • When it comes to a civil rights analysis, it’s not equal protection under the law when we have more legal handles to protect big polluters than we do to protect the communities that bear the brunt of pollution-driven climate change.
  • It’s not equal protection under the law when a Navajo family in New Mexico can be polluted upon by coal fired power plants to such an extent that everyone in the family has respiratory illnesses from ingesting sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide while 70% of the people on the reservation don’t have access to the very electricity being generated by the coal plants and only 30% of the residents on the reservation have running water.
  • It’s not equal protection under the law when there is a breakdown in democracy that allows an entire community like Flint, Michigan to be poisoned with impunity by lead in a completely avoidable travesty that started with historic pollution and was perpetuated by non-elected, non-representational “governance” that prioritized finances over families.
  • It’s not equal protection under the law when in the aftermath of Hurricane Isaac in 2012, which took lives and livelihoods in Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana, Senator Mary Landrieu asked the Army Corps of Engineers why the levees weren’t fortified and they responded that they use a formula for prioritization of levee fortification which assigns points for economic impact if the levee is breached.

What kind of society have we built that institutionalizes the prioritization of economic loss over loss of human lives?

To invoke a resonant mantra and movement that, in this context, certainly transcends geographic boundaries, we as oft-marginalized communities held a demonstration at the United Nation Climate Talks in Paris last December to call out the geopolitical, racial justice, and broader social justice intersections. Together, as communities from across the African Diaspora, in linked arms with our allies, we declared that Black Lives Matter from Virginia Beach to Victoria Falls to Vanuatu and beyond!

Therefore, we need to transform the decision making spaces from the court rooms, to the zoning boards, to the hearing rooms of the Public Utilities Commissions, to the halls of Congress, to the auditoriums of the United Nations and beyond. We must transform them from spaces where those in power are acting at the behest of corporate interests, to spaces that are truly representing the needs of the people, the nations, and the planet they should serve, starting right here in the US with getting money out of politics through campaign finance reform and reversing Citizen’s United.

While simultaneously, we must be the change we want to see in the world by advancing a Just Transition at the local levels starting with the United States, which only represents 4% of the global population, but contributes upwards of 25% of the global emissions that drive climate change. We must make fundamental shifts from a society that drills and burns to power our communities, to one that harnesses the sun and the wind; from a society that buries or burns our waste, to one that recovers, reuses, and recycles; from a society that genetically modifies, trucks, and ships food, to one that advances local production of food that is nutritious and accessible for all; and more. Overall, we must have a radical transformation from extracting, polluting, and dominating policies and practices to regenerative, cooperative systems that uplift all rights for all people while preserving the environment upon which we all rely for our existence.


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