Is Climate Change Racist?

In October of 2014, I, with a group of 8 other college students, packed into a van borrowed from our school and drove to Bridgeport, CT. We joined a rally of protestors whose goal was to shut down the coal plant there. We were given signs and T-shirts that read “Clean Air NOW!” and “Let’s Move Beyond Bridgeport Coal” and soon thereafter entered a Town Hall to attend the council meeting. I observed the council representatives and quickly noticed, unsurprised, that most of them were older white people. Only about three were people of color, and the only face familiar to me belonged to a Latino man who was the only representative involved in the campaign and had greeted us while we were outside rallying.

When the time came, a representative of the Bridgeport Act on Climate community group stood and began describing Bridgeport’s poverty, its lack of health, and quantitative data against the coal plant in Bridgeport.The coal plant spews 900,000+ tons of carbon dioxide- more than any other facility in CT- and its effects were very apparent.He introduced a woman who began vividly describing the struggles she had with her son because of his asthma. She appealed to the sympathies of the committee by asking, “Why are we the ones suffering from dirty air?” She was, of course, referring to the important fact that Bridgeport held the last coal plant in all of Connecticut- which was (metaphorically) located right in her backyard.

The fight to shut down the Bridgeport coal plant is reminiscent of other low-income, minority communities who have little political representation and influence and therefore suffer disproportionately from environmental hazards. These communities are commonly referred to as Environmental Justice (EJ) communities. That day was the first time the environmental justice movement was so pertinent in my mind. It was also the day that the slogan my school’s environmental group uses made sense to me. Climate Change is Racist.

Despite the fact that EJ communities like Bridgeport are the most affected by environmental policies, they have the least representation during policymaking. WE ACT and other environmental justice advocacy groups have formed what is called the Environmental Justice Leadership Forum (EJLeadershipforum), which involves 33 grassroots organizations across 19 states whose goal is to make the concerns of EJ communities such as Bridgeport a high priority when discussing the new EPA proposal called the Clean Power Plan (CPP). The goal of CPP is to cut U.S. carbon emissions 30% below 2005 levels by the year 2030.

Because the CPP works on an individualized state-by-state basis where states must come up with their own plans, there is no reason that EJ communities should not have their voices and concerns heard. The EJ Leadership Forum is working to make sure that EJ communities are present and their voices heard during State Implementation Processes (SIPs). The specific steps that WE ACT and EJ allies are taking include ensuring that the EPA issues substantial guidance on how states should incorporate EJ concerns into their SIP; conduct a proximity analysis on affected factories; ensuring that health, energy efficiency, and economic justice are considered during the transition; and ensuring that the Best Systems of Energy Reduction (BSERs) are truly the best systems for all. These steps that the Clean Power, Clean Air, Cleaner Communities campaign is taking is so important for setting a standard of inclusiveness and concern for EJ communities when discussing environmental policy.

Days after the council meeting, my school peers and I got word from our friends in the Bridgeport Act on Climate that the committee had voted to pass a resolution to phase out the coal plant. That day of rallying and having representatives from an Environmental Justice community make demands that they and their families be protected from dirty air demonstrated the power people can have in impacting the environment if they take the chance. The work the EJ Leadership Forum is doing has tangible benefits for other EJ communities to take the opportunity to make their communities cleaner and safer, because Black Lungs Matter.

This post was written by WE ACT intern Tedra James. The opinions expressed here represent her opinion and not those of WE ACT


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