From the Bronx to Botswana: Making a climate change connection

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People of color have learned the challenges of overcoming adversity and injustice all too well throughout history. Today, a new challenge faces communities of color everywhere, and that challenge lies at the intersection of a global environmental, health, and poverty crises. This challenge that we are talking about is climate change, which disproportionately affects communities of color no matter where they are located.

In United States, for example, the tornadoes and floods of 2011 and the hurricanes of 2005 have affected the lives and livelihoods of millions of people of color.

Tragically, despite the fact that African-Americans produce low emissions in the United States compared to others, and therefore are least responsible for creating the climate crisis, because many African-Americans live in close proximity to coal fired power plants, they are disproportionately ingesting polluting emissions.

This results in health conditions such as asthma, lung cancer and other respiratory illnesses. African-Americans also have a higher tendency to live in coastal areas, which are disproportionately impacted by climate change-related effects, including increasingly severe weather events like storms, floods, and sea level rise.

Like African-American communities in the United States, people in poverty and people living in Africa are also disproportionately impacted by climate change. While these communities experience some of the most severe impacts of climate change, many have little capacity to adapt to those impacts.

In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, approximately 4,000 children die from starvation daily. The worst droughts in over 60 years in East Africa have put huge swathes of Kenya, Ethiopia and Somaliland at the point of collapse, leaving more than 10 million people in urgent need of assistance. Experts estimate that in less than 10 years from now, in 2020, yields from rain-fed agriculture could decrease by half because of climate change.

Considering that over 40 percent of Africa’s population lives in extreme poverty and, of that, 70 percent are located in rural areas and depend largely on agriculture for their livelihoods, the call for action is even more urgent. Meanwhile in the United States, African-Americans are already twice as likely to live in food deserts (where there is no grocery store within a five mile radius) and 1 in 4 African-Americans are food insecure, lacking sufficient food.

There is something that we can do about the multiple crises resulting from climate change. On July 26 at the NAACP 102nd Annual Convention, the NAACP, Pan African Climate Justice Alliance and ActionAid co-hosted a film screening of When the Water Ends and If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise. These two films share the images and stories that highlight and illustrate the impact of climate change on communities of color in the US and countries in Africa.

The post-screening discussion highlighted ways the NAACP and others can work together on strategies to address climate change, such as reducing emissions, increasing clean energy, and providing necessary resources to communities to deal with climate change impacts such as extreme disasters.

Also, in November 2011, world leaders will meet in Durban, South Africa for a major summit on climate change, where major decisions will be made on issues disproportionately affecting people of color. It is critical we have a voice at the Durban Summit and beyond; we must ensure policies that deeply reduce pollution globally and in the United States which harms health and drives climate change, and that industries that create pollution are replaced with clean energy solutions. New funding to help communities adapt to the impacts of climate change is also essential.

It is critical that affected community members have a say in how funding for climate change is governed, disbursed, and used so that resources for climate change are spent in a way that will truly meet the needs of impacted countries and communities. Examples of funding mechanisms include the Green Climate Fund, established in December 2010, which will finance programs in affected countries to address the impacts of climate change and reduce emissions. At the same time, domestic disaster relief funds would be better designed to assist residents in areas like the recently affected Missouri, Alabama, and Mississippi.

Our collective strength lies in our ability to stand up for our rights and to seek equality for all. Our voice is loud and powerful—particularly when we stand with our brothers and sisters across the globe dealing with similar struggles. We urge you to demand that your policymakers stand with people living in poverty and stand with communities of color everywhere and take meaningful steps to tackle climate change.

We cannot and will not rest, until we achieve justice. It is not just a problem for Africans or African-Americans — it is a challenge of all humankind. Let us all remember the words of Martin Luther King Jr. — “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We are prepared to face it.

Jacqui Patterson is the Climate Justice Initiative Director for the NAACP. Augustine Njamnshi is the Executive Secretary of the Bioresources Development and Conservation Programme and coordinates the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance in the Central African Region.