Is the state of the environment a racial issue? Some groups definitely think so. Environmental activists have been trying hard to bring race into their campaigning to end fossil fuel use and fight global warming.
Lately, environmentalists from the Obama administration to major activist groups have been dragging race into environmental issues from global warming to hydraulic fracturing to oil-by-rail shipments.
A recent tweet by the Sierra Club president Michael Brune links to an article by club activist Javier Sierra titled “Rolling Bombs: Millions of Latinos Live Next Door to a Public Menace, Oil Trains.”
— Michael Brune (@bruneski) November 4, 2014
In the article Sierra warns that Latino communities could become “graveyards” from oil train cars derailing and causing massive accidents, especially as oil production soars and more is shipped by rail. He warns that “we haven’t seen any real improvements in the safety of these trains” and that the “oil and railroad companies… seem to be whistling past the graveyard.”
Only a couple of weeks before Brune’s tweet, the Natural Resources Defense Council released a study warning that 5.4 million California residents live within an oil or natural gas well, and that most of those people were “of color.”
“Nearly five and a half million Californians now live within a mile of an oil or gas well, including nearly 4 million who are people of color,” NRDC reported, adding that minority group break down of “45 percent Latino/Hispanic, 13 percent Asian, 8 percent African American and 3 percent other.”
“Additionally, one-third of people who live within a mile of a well—1.8 million people—live in communities that already shoulder a disproportionate amount of the state’s air, water and soil pollution as a result of living close to industrial facilities, transportation corridors, hazardous waste facilities and toxic clean-up sites,” NRDC added. “Nearly 92 percent of those residents are people of color (69 percent Latino/Hispanic, 11 percent Asian, 10 percent African American and 2 percent other).”
And before that, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy said the agency’s new rules to tackle global warming by cutting carbon dioxide emissions were about protecting “communities of color.”
“Carbon pollution standards are an issue of justice,” McCarthy said on a teleconference call with environmental activists. “If we want to protect communities of color, we need to protect them from climate change.”
“Asthma disproportionately affects African-American kids,” McCarthy added. “In just the first year these standards go into effect, we’ll avoid up to 100,000 asthma attacks and 2,100 heart attacks — and those numbers go up from there.”
So why the focus on minorities? For the last couple of years, some in the environmental movement have been complaining about the lack of diversity — called the “green ceiling.” Green groups must be trying to remedy that and build broader coalitions.
Such concerns were augmented by a recent study by University of Michigan academics who found that “the racial composition in environmental organizations and agencies has not broken the 12% to 16% ‘green ceiling’ that has been in place for decades.”
Van Jones, the former Obama green jobs czar, has even said the environmental movement was too white and could benefit from including more African American communities, who he says care a lot about solutions to global warming and other eco-issues.
“I think there’s always been way more support in the black community for climate solutions and environmental solutions than we have credit for,” Jones told the liberal news site Grist in an interview last year. “Some affluent white communities are more vocal and maybe have more intensity, and also more resources to single this one issue out, but the polling data’s pretty clear that African-Americans are among the most supportive of environmental regulation and climate solutions.”
Often environmentalists will try to tie in the concept of environmental justice to social justice, a popular rallying cry among African American groups. The EPA says environmental justice is “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”
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