Black people are the key to stopping the climate crisis — we just don’t know it yet 

OPINION: The spaces we live in are regularly under attack from a noxious confluence of environmental stressors. We could reverse these trends the sooner we center environmental protection and climate resilience as the key to our survival.

A house sits along the long stretch of River Road by the Mississippi River and the many chemical plants October 12, 2013. "Cancer Alley" is one of the most polluted areas of the United States and lies along the once pristine Mississippi River that stretches some 80 miles from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, where a dense concentration of oil refineries, petrochemical plants, and other chemical industries reside alongside suburban homes. (Photo by Giles Clarke/Getty Images.)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Back in 2014, two years into the second term of the first Black president, I made the fairly audacious claim in a column that “… President Obama could be the only Black person on the planet who cares about climate change. Let’s be real about it: The ill-fated climate change debate is as white as late-night talk shows. Most egregious is a pervasive lack of any urgent Black political action on the subject.”  

This prompted eye rolls, spasms and even counter columns from noted voices in the environmental-justice activist class. Strangely enough, the column mysteriously disappeared. Still, that statement stands as true today as it did nine years ago, even as Black communities nationwide find themselves virtually defenseless on the frontlines of environmental catastrophe and existential threats such as climate crisis. Indeed, anything environmental easily tops the list as our No. 1 challenge. Against the backdrop of every problem we consider a uniquely — or disproportionately — Black problem, there is something gravely environmental triggering, aggravating or exacerbating them.  

Black communities have always been the first warning signs of environmental and climate disasters. Our trans-Atlantic enslavement, the impetus of modern capitalism, is what caused and accelerated it, as Penn State University climatologist Gregory Jenkins reminds us. As a somewhat seminal 2017 joint NAACP and Clean Air Task Force report found, Black people “… are exposed to 38 percent more polluted air [than whites], and they are 75 percent more likely to live in fence-line communities.” Fence line means we’re more likely than everyone else to live next door to or near a toxic facility. That’s not even mentioning the disproportionate share of asthma, respiratory illnesses, cancers and other chronic diseases we face as a result. 

But that growing collection of morbidities worsens daily with the aggravated trigger of the climate crisis. Dramatic changes in our physical environments — our air, land, water and indoor conditions — are now a leading cause of what’s making us sicker, which means it’s time we make it a leading driver of our social justice activism, how we vote and who we vote for.

The problem, however, is that most of us still don’t realize it, yet, or we’re not mobilizing as if we do. 

As HIT Strategies January 2022 polling of Black voters showed, “climate change and the environment” continued to show up near the bottom of the list of policy concerns. YouGov/Economist polling now (finally) shows Black voters more concerned about climate issues than any other group (62 percent of Black voters cite it as “very important” compared to only 40 percent of whites and 51 percent of Latino voters). Clearly, that presents an opportunity — but, it’s not reflected in collective Black political discourse as the top issue that it is. The alarm bells aren’t ringing as they should. 

Prioritization of environmental and climate crisis issues, and the response to Black suffering, still lags. The origins of this ignorance-by-design are not entirely our fault. Generally speaking, Americans don’t act or vote like the planet is on a disaster trajectory: consumer vanity and climate catastrophe are on aligned fast tracks. Meanwhile, mainstream environmental movements segregate Black communities and advocates into the “environmental justice” section of the proverbial bookstore, with most “green” narratives hijacked by appeals to white sensitivities (it’s not like the U.N. is inviting us to the COP summit negotiating tables so, instead, we’re outside yelling … if we can afford to get there). National environmental campaigns regularly present images, places, and events geographically far removed from the daily concerns of Black populations in the United States. It’s not framed in a way that’s relevant to our daily stress, it’s not discussed in language that we can relate to and it’s not accessible.  

Distressed Black neighborhoods sweating through climate crisis-instigated heatwaves in major cities like Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Baltimore or Detroit — while struggling with high gun violence, food deserts, lack of health care access and the absence of basic amenities such as tree canopy and stable housing, are trying to stay cool and alive. The last thing on anyone’s mind is ice caps melting or deforestation in the Amazon — even if that’s making their living spaces hotter and violent or forcing their kids out of school early — or wildfires gobbling up forests in generally white exurban and rural enclaves. The enormity of the climate crisis won’t hit our community conversation hard until climatic events like a hurricane or Biblical flood hit and homes are destroyed, body counts rise and families find themselves completely displaced and unable to recover at all financially. Or until the water shortages out West cut Black folks’ water pipes off first, as DuBois Ashong’s realistic 2018 dystopian short film “Where the Water Runs” suggests. 

But we’re just as responsible for not proactively raising this on our blocks as a top issue. Black media, with a few recent exceptions, is largely silent on environmental issues. Black pop culture discourse will still dismiss a climate conversation as “a white people’s thing.” The very influential and dominant “elite” Black celebrity-rapper-athlete-entertainment industrial complex is so self-absorbed by and chained to a relentless turntable of social media bragging rights, label obsession, reality shows and crypto-creeping neo-slavery, that our social squares seem completely oblivious to the collapse of the ecosystems around us … unless it becomes a trend. Tune in to the most highly rated Black talk radio, TV or streamed shows, open up a Black newspaper or major publication and most of the time, the climate crisis doesn’t exist. You won’t hear the Black church raise a finger about it in the pulpit. Black elected officials are gradually discussing it more, but the extent of that depends greatly on how much sinister fossil fuel companies will allow it

The only time climate and environmental destruction gets humanized or becomes a major political mission on the national stage is when it hits white people — such as what we’re seeing unfolding right now in Ohio. But, as Black Wall Street Times’ Ezekiel Walker recently notes, we’d never see Black residents from Jackson, Miss., or Flint, Mich., or “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana get the full panel treatment on CNN the same way white Midwestern residents (who regularly vote for anti-environment and climate crisis-denialist Republican officeholders) do. 

No one should be surprised by persistent violent crime rates in not only systematically divested Black spaces, but Black spaces that are melting from an increase in global temperatures. No one should be surprised by spiked chronic disease and high Black maternal mortality rates when the air is toxic from pervasive particulate matter and while water is still largely contaminated by lead or school buildings are rife with asbestos. The spaces we live in are regularly under direct attack from a noxious confluence of environmental stressors. We could engage the counterattack and reverse those trends the sooner we center environmental protection and climate resilience as the key to our survival. Not only are we on the frontlines of it, but we are positioned as the leaders of a movement well primed to save the entire planet. We better move fast.

Charles D. Ellison is managing editor of ecoWURD and Executive Producer/Host of “Reality Check,” a daily public affairs program on WURD. He is a 2023 Emerson Collective Fellow and Climate Pivoter.  He can be reached @ellisonreport on Twitter or LinkedIn. 

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