Fighting Climate Change Means Fighting Racial Injustice
Fighting Climate Change Means Fighting Racial Injustice
“You can’t let one segment of society become a sacrifice.”
Michael Méndez, an assistant professor at the University of California, Irvine, was on the phone talking about the protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd beneath a white police officer’s knee. But he was also talking about environmental justice and climate change. And he could just as easily have been talking about Covid-19, which has taken more than 100,000 American lives and, in the process, exposed gaping inequalities of wealth, access to healthcare and job safety.
Méndez has a new book called “Climate Change From The Streets” about the struggle of low-income and minority communities to have a voice in shaping environmental policy. It should be required reading for the most committed Green New Dealers and their opponents alike.
This fight for climate justice is already happening in one of America’s most iconic and charged settings: Watts, the Los Angeles neighborhood that made headlines half a century ago for another set of riots exploding out of systemic racism.
In late January, when it was still OK to get on a plane and meet strangers without masks, I spent a sunny afternoon there. My guide was Mac Shorty, who grew up there and is now a community advocate.
Watts’s scars, and triumphs, are visible in the fabric of the place. In 20 minutes, you can walk between two landmarks both built around the same time in the mid-20th century: Watts Towers, the monumental, Gaudi-esque artwork put together from found objects; and Jordan Downs, the decayed, low-rise housing project burdened by a notorious history of gang violence. In between is Watts Coffee House, a restaurant and black-history time capsule that traces back to the aftermath of the 1965 riots.
Opposite sits Florence Griffith Joyner elementary school — named for the Olympian and former Jordan Downs resident — where Shorty points out blue sheeting stretched across the fence; put up, he says, to block children’s view of the street after a shooting outside. On the other side of the school is an urban farm called MudTown that stands out for its newness, sense of calm and sheer incongruity in south LA.
Predominantly Hispanic these days, though still with a large African-American population, Watts’s median household income is about half the average for California, and its poverty rate is about double. At one point, Shorty brought me by Atlas Iron & Metal Co., whose piles of scrap make it the sort of neighbor most communities would prefer elsewhere. But Shorty points out the people lining up with carts to sell what they’ve gathered, earning themselves a little extra income while clearing sidewalks of old appliances and trash. Crime is no longer as bad as it once was — Shorty’s mother was shot dead the year he enrolled in college — but remains a problem.
Contending with such day-to-day pressures, who’s got time to think about the environment? Yet that is where Shorty focuses much of his effort, ranging from remediation of dirty tap water to organizing Earth Day events to raising funds for installation of solar power in the neighborhood.
There’s no shortage of work to do. Watts ranks among the worst 5% of all California districts in terms of pollution. Emblematic of this is the Jordan Downs redevelopment program, which unearthed contamination by lead, arsenic and oil products among other hazards, legacies of an industrial past and continuous neglect. It also sits by South Alameda Street, a busy artery linking the Port of Long Beach with downtown LA that forms Watts’s eastern boundary and suffuses the neighborhood with a steady dose of tailpipe emissions and heat.
A person born in Watts can expect to live 12 years less than a fellow Angeleno lucky enough to be raised 20 miles away in affluent Brentwood. It’s the sort of shocking statistic where much of the shock value lies in just how unshocked we have become by such disparities in how people live and die. When two housing authority employees stopped by Jordan Downs to say hello that January afternoon, Shorty warned them to rinse off the dust and soil from their shoes before going home to their families.
Dirt on a worker’s shoes, and what might be lurking within it, has little to do directly with our planet’s changing climate. Yet it has everything to do with actually doing something about climate change. This is the central message of Méndez’s book.
Opposition to climate action is made easier by the abstract nature of the threat; would that carbon dioxide was visible like a traffic haze. Absent that, it’s all too easy to ignore the problem or denounce measures to address it as job-killers. In the grand American tradition, this then gets overlaid onto existing divisions and stereotypes, such as pitting those old coastal elites worried about the polar bears against inland or inner-city workers just trying to put food on the table.
As Méndez lays out, such tension, and its resolution, has shaped California’s environmental policy. One of the most contentious aspects of the state’s landmark Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, known as AB32 and signed into law by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, was its reliance on a cap-and-trade mechanism for emissions. While environmental justice groups also sought to curb emissions, they pointed out that allowing polluters to buy credits to offset emissions let them pick and choose where actual cuts happen.
That may reduce carbon emissions overall, which is good for the planet. But it also means communities close to sources that choose to buy permits instead of cutting remain exposed to other harmful emissions. As numerous studies have concluded, those places tend to be poorer or minority neighborhoods.
One analysis published a year ago by researchers from the University of Minnesota and the University of Washington compared Americans’ exposure to fine particulates versus how much pollution their consumption generates. It found non-Hispanic whites experience 17% less exposure to pollution, on average, than is caused by their own consumption. Conversely, African-Americans are exposed to 56% more than their consumption generates; the figure for the Hispanic population is 63% more. This is all of our environmental, health and — via that denominator of consumption — wealth disparity combined into a cloud of choking dust.
These under-served communities represent a well of support for broader action. A poll conducted a year ago by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that 49% of white respondents expressed “alarm” or “concern” about global warming. The figures for Hispanic and African-American respondents were 69% and 57%, respectively.
Selective sacrifice isn’t just immoral; it’s a fallacy. The necessary precondition of herd immunity against multiple ills is acknowledging you're actually part of a herd.