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Carbon and Communities of Color – Backstage with ECC at Earth Day 2015

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Photo courtesy of Troy Lancaster

The pressing need for low-income communities of color to benefit equitably from the fruits of clean energy and a sustainable economy was the theme of a multicultural roundtable, The Impact of Carbon on Communities of Color, held backstage at Global Citizens Earth Day 2015. Co-hosted by ECC and the Earth Day Network, the roundtable was part of a massive celebration of Earth Day’s 45th anniversary on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

ECC President and CEO Denise Fairchild and Green Latinos Executive Director Mark Magaña co-hosted the conversation, which emphasized that “frontline” communities of color are often the hardest hit – “the first and worst” – by extreme climate events, yet they are the last to receive either assistance in the aftermath such events nor the up-front investment and support that can avoid or mitigate those disasters.

Clean Power Plan Applauded

Several speakers hailed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan (CPP) as “the best thing” to come along to protect the environment, given that carbon is the biggest driver of global climate change. They emphasized the clear connection between cutting carbon and creating a clean energy future as states develop plans to meet EPA’s requirement to cut carbon emissions by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

Fairchild opened the discussion by stating, “We must ensure that those [CPP] plans address the needs of the communities most affected by carbon emissions” – which requires seats at the table for community representatives when state plans are being developed. With 68 percent of African Americans living within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant and communities of color breathing in nearly 40 percent more polluted air than whites, she noted, African-American children are three times as likely to suffer an asthma attack as white children.

Lucia Hennelly, The Environmental Defense Fund’s campaign manager for new climate partnerships, said many Latinos in California and in the Southwest states are at risk from the severe drought in those areas, while communities in Florida are threatened by flooding from sea-level rise due to hurricanes.

In a statement distributed at the roundtable, Global Citizen 2015 announced that in response to ECC’s organizing of national environmental and climate justice organization to advocate around climate equity, EPA’s final CPP regulations will, in fact, require states “to examine environmental inequities and develop a policy committed to equity, fairness and environmental justice.”

“This is an opportunity to develop an environmental justice lens, and the EPA has recognized this moment with the Clean Power Plan,” Fairchild said. She added, “A clean energy future is also a way to create jobs, and we want to be part of that.”

Minorities ARE Environmentalists

Fairchild and other speakers debunked the idea that communities of color do not care about the environment, citing poll numbers showing that from half to two-thirds are concerned – more than in the mainstream white community.

Fairchild said this is because climate change “impacts us in our day-to-day lives. We live this every day.” Noting that 13 percent of all African Americans have asthma and therefore are twice as likely as whites to be hospitalized, she added, “When African Americans realize that climate change leads to these kinds of health impacts, they begin to understand the issue.”

Adriana Quintero, director of partnership engagement for the Natural Resources Defense Council, echoed that, asserting that while Latinos and African Americans do not fit the classic environmentalist mold, environmentalism must be broadened to be inclusive, diverse and ensure that everyone can “speak in their own voice. We need to make sure we own our planet and secure our future. 

Lydia Camarillo – vice president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project in San Antonio, whose work “empowers Latinos to vote and hold governments accountable” – said the civil rights movement “needs environmentalists,” and that her organization has partnered on Earth Day for more than 11 years. “It’s personal, it’s Mother Earth!” she declared. “Earth Day and our work are about saving humanity so we can live with dignity and respect.”

Also reinforcing that theme, Magaña said Latinos are “cultural conservationists” if not “movement or membership conservationists” because their heritage of food, camping, holiday celebrations and other outdoor activities depends on a clean, healthful environment. He added that the birth of his first child and his awareness of minorities’ deaths caused by industrial pollution have brought home the importance of working together for the benefit of the entire community.

Recalling the “smog alerts” during his Los Angeles childhood, he asked, “How can you tell a child not to go out and play?”

A Global Perspective and a Surprise Visit

Rusul Al-Shihab, EDN’s Middle East and North Africa advisor, added a global perspective to the discussion, noting that EDN had organized widespread Earth Day 2015 events in those parts of the world because protecting the environment is so important, even in the midst of political problems. After all he said, “We all live on Earth.”

As the discussion wound down, speakers agreed that the Earth Day event was just the beginning of an important national conversation around climate justice. The event concluded on a high note when Earth Day founder Denis Hayes stepped into the tent to greet and thank the speakers and their organizations for carrying on the work he launched 45 years ago.  He emphasized that Earth Day is returning to its roots when it was nestled within larger movements and fights for women’s and civil rights, peace and economic opportunity.   He cited the theme of Earth Day 2015 -- Global Citizens- as the alignment of the environmental movement with a global struggle against poverty and for human rights and dignity. 

Photo courtesy of Troy Lancaster

Photos courtesy of Troy Lancaster

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