As a Christian, a parent, a wife, and an entrepreneur, the thought of traveling to our nation’s capitol to be arrested on purpose had never crossed my mind. When provided the opportunity to do just that as a way to bring attention to the need for action against climate change – at the Forward on Climate rally on February 17 in Washington DC –I couldn’t help but think of all the reasons I shouldn’t do it. What will my family and friends think, what will the people who I do business with think, what if I do go to jail?
However, I suddenly captured a vivid memory of the faces of the men, women, and children I met in 2005 arriving in Houston, Texas on the last buses leaving New Orleans, Louisiana after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. I thought about the woman eager to get clean drinking water and shoes who stated with great sincerity, “I am so happy to be back in America”. I thought about the father with children looking for the mother of his children, his wife, whom Katrina’s wrath had snatched from his arms. I thought of the young college student who was yet seeking his entire family. Then, those statistics that I often rattle off crept into my mind. Those numbers which show that some children are much more likely not to sleep through the night, to not show up at school on a regular basis, to repeatedly visit the hospital emergency room, or to die because of problems with breathing. Sound science has linked these respiratory ailments, including asthma, to toxins present in the air. Sound science has also shown that some of these same toxins, primarily emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) through energy production via the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, are also the same drivers of climate change and the extreme weather patterns leading to catastrophic “billion dollar list” events such, Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Isaac, Hurricane Katrina, as well as drought across the U.S., and massive tornadoes that wiped cities of the map.
The facilities that emit such toxins are more likely to be placed in communities of color and African Americans across this country disproportionately ingest the polluting emissions that damage the earth and contaminate the human body, resulting in negative health effects. Data shows that African Americans have a 36 percent higher rate of incidence of asthma than whites, are hospitalized for asthma at 3 times the rate of whites, and die of asthma at two times the rate of whites. Detroit, MI, a predominately African American city and Michigan’s asthma epicenter, generates approximately 70% of electricity from coal-burning power plants and has an adult asthma rate for African Americans that is 50 percent higher than that of Michigan’s. African Americans are more likely to live in inner cities, which tend to be about 10 degrees warmer than non-urban areas; experience heat-related deaths at a 150 to 200 percent greater rate than for non-Hispanic whites; and have a higher tendency to live in coastal areas which are disproportionately impacted by increased severe weather events and sea level rise. At 25.7 percent, African Americans experience food insecurity, another consequence of climate change, at much higher rates than the national average of 14.6 percent. African Americans are also being disproportionately negatively affected by rise in home energy costs and the overall financial crisis to the extent that last winter Detroit had record rates of death due to fire from people using jerry-rigged means to heat their homes. African American communities are often starting from a place of compromised access to quality health care, face high unemployment rates, and are more likely to live in housing with health hazards. This makes these challenges even more impactful than they would for those with more resources. It is also important to note that although African American communities are the most heavily/severely impacted, they emit nearly 18 percent less CO2 than all Americans.
As Julian Bond, NAACP chairman emeritus stated, “climate change isn’t just an environmental issue — it’s also a racial and human rights issue.” This fight is about our health, our economy, our existence and it is beyond time for us to move from our comfort zones. So for me, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with civil rights leaders and activists such as Julian Bond and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. was an honor, a privilege, and a minor sacrifice in comparison to the impact of the climate injustices underway in communities across the United States and worldwide.
As a generation, we must find the courage to take a stand to demand our political leaders take urgent action to address climate change and the energy policies that perpetuate climate injustice. In the books of history, the generations to come must be certain that our generation stood to fight for them just as the Julian Bonds in our past and present did for us.
Pamela Smith is Health Chair of the Michigan State Conference of the NAACP
(Photo: Courtesy of NAACP)