For some African American residents, climate change is but one of many priorities
Sunday afternoon saw a great turnout for a historic march through the streets of Manhattan. Elected officials, local residents and community activists gathered to commemorate an important occasion and to push for causes of social justice.
It was the 45th annual African American Day Parade.
“Yes, I know the Climate Change March and the Brooklyn Book Festival [are] today as well, but I will be covering the [African American Day] parade,” said Marc Polite, a writer and Harlem resident who runs the website Polite On Society.
For Polite, climate change is certainly important, but on Sunday it competed with a commitment to his cultural heritage. Other individuals from the African American community expressed similar sentiments.
“In the minds of most African Americans, there is not always a nexus between climate change and income inequality and other issues we care about,” said Richard Hurley, a lawyer and president of the Crown Heights Community Council. “Our concerns are more immediate, tangible and involve landlords, developers, policing and disingenuous politicians.”
“Where does climate change rank on the list of problems and issues for our community?” local leader Pastor Lloyd Allwood said. One of the heads of Good Tidings Gospel Chapel in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the pastor admitted difficulty giving the issue its proper attention.
“We know it’s important, we know it’s affecting us, but there are so many issues more immediately impacting our congregation,” Allwood said. His congregants, predominantly from the West Indies, “came to the city for a better life” but still struggle with more basic issues like adequate food, shelter and education.
“These are issues where we constantly say the city can and should do more, and I suppose climate change is the same way,” Allwood said. “For our community, though, we don’t wait for the government to help us — we expect that if we want change, we bring it about ourselves. For that reason, we are skeptical of just how much things will change, or how much we can do to make a difference on the climate issue.”
That being said, the pastor did mention organizations that were “doing much better” as a result of the city revamping the staff, including the Boys and Girls High School. He suggested further recycling initiatives as just one project the city could embark upon that he would help support.
‘Not at the Top of the List’ — But Some Say it Should Be
“Chances are, if you are a person of color, climate change isn’t at the top of your list of concerns,” said Dr. Robert D. Bullard, a scholar and Dean at Texas Southern University who has examined environmental justice in the context of its intersection with African American community. “Finding a job, keeping the lights and heat on, and guarding the health and safety of your kids are your priorities — and what you want your political leaders to prioritize, too.”
That being said, Bullard argues that climate change should nonetheless be a top priority for African Americans because of the possibility of an increase in natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, adverse health effects from pollution (and increases in childhood asthma) and the risk of deaths from heat waves in urban communities often requiring pedestrian travel.
“Climate change affects us because when it comes to evacuation plans that don’t get carried out, like during Hurricane Katrina, we are among the most vulnerable,” he said.
Government Action Recognizes a Threat to People of Color
For its part, both the federal and local government have recognized a direct connection between the threat from climate change and harm to the African American community, with proposed measures to curb the most worrisome externalities.
“Carbon pollution standards are an issue of justice,” said Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy in a teleconference call with environmental activists, as reported by the Daily Caller. “If we want to protect communities of color, we need to protect them from climate change.”
Accordingly, a proposed rule by the EPA would limit carbon dioxide emissions from power plants to limit pollution and improve public health, which the EPA sees as specifically protecting African American children.
“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.”
On the local level, Mayor Bill de Blasio is committing to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent over 2005 levels by 2050 with a sweeping plan to retrofit public and private buildings to dramatically reduce the city’s contributions to climate change.
“The effects of climate change have been ravaging the communities where NYC members live for years,” said Jonathan Westin, executive director of New York Communities for Change, in response to the Mayor’s initiative. “From the devastation Sandy brought in the Rockaways to the disproportionately high asthma rates in Central Brooklyn and the South Bronx, low-income communities of color have suffered the majority of the consequences linked to our changing planet.”
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