The Faces of Climate Justice

April 13, 2018

A dam of sand bags

Climate change is real. From unprecedented wildfires in the West to mega-hurricanes in the Atlantic and the Gulf, it’s all very real and it’s happening now.

And a lot of us are waking up to the fact that climate change is far more than simply an environmental disaster—it’s a justice issue. It affects our health and safety. It affects our jobs and livelihoods, our neighborhoods, our property values. And it affects some of us far more than others.

No matter who we are or where we live, it’s changing all of our lives. But, it’s also bringing some people—people who might not have much in common otherwise—together in ways we never could have anticipated.


Breaking a Nasty Habit?

Burning fossil fuels is what got our society into the global climate-altering business in the first place, and most of us would agree that altering the climate on a global scale is objectively bad. But our relationship to fossil fuels is… complicated. Mostly because all that digging and drilling and burning also powered the Industrial Revolution and provided the foundation for - while continuing to provide many of the perks of - our modern life. Not only that, states and entire regions came to depend on fossil fuels for their economies.

Take coal, for example: Those dirty-fuel jobs may have been terrible for the environment and dangerous for those who held them, but they also offered stability and a shot at prosperity. Well, those days are done. Coal jobs are never coming back.


Communities Left Behind

While Mother Nature sighs in relief at that news, the communities that relied on coal for their livelihood are in terrible shape. Blighted downtowns, crumbling houses, abandoned mines, and widespread poverty can be found all through Appalachia and elsewhere in what used to be coal country, now that the overall economy is gearing up for a clean-energy future. Take a quick look at some of these struggling towns and you might think they were hit by a natural disaster. A hurricane. A flood.

The coal-mining industry has a lot to answer for when it comes to creating climate change, but what about the miners? In many ways, the men and women left behind in West Virginia or Wyoming have been victimized just as much as those whose communities were destroyed in New Orleans, Houston, or Puerto Rico. While some lawmakers, like Vermont’s Rep. Peter Welch, have introduced legislation intended to help out-of-work miners transition to new jobs, for many families, the situation remains bleak.


From Underground to Underwater

We’ve seen a lot of not-so-natural disasters recently. All those hurricanes that came ripping through the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico last year? Climate change supercharged them, intensifying the destruction. Even seven months later, many people in Puerto Rico remain without power.

No one is safe from a hurricane’s winds or storm surge, but that doesn’t mean that the damage, from impact to cleanup to recovery, is evenly shared. As always, the poorest communities are hit the hardest. In fact, right across the board, frontline communities—low-income communities, communities of color, and indigenous communities already harmed by generations of environmental injustice (it’s no accident that African Americans are more likely to live close to a power plant or that people of color and the poor suffer higher rates of cancer and asthma and are generally in worse health than the rich)—face the brunt of climate change’s worst effects.

The news media and many of our leaders like to make claims about a red and a blue America. They talk about how we’re a nation divided. They talk about “culture wars.” But when you take a step back, the people who worked the mines for generations only to emerge and find their towns largely abandoned and their jobs disappeared have a lot more in common with the people of the ruined Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans or Houston’s devastated Manchester neighborhood than anybody might previously have guessed.


What’s Next?

The good news is that the transition from dirty fossil fuels to the clean-energy future is already underway. There have been dramatic changes in coal country, as former miners retrain to become coders or wind-turbine technicians and abandoned coal mines find new life as solar farms. There’s also a growing recognition that city planning must change and adapt to the new climate-change reality. The Netherlands has led the way in working on strategies for “climate-proofing” vulnerable cities.

But the most important thing we can do is understand that we are all connected. There is no “us” and “them”: we stand together as Americans. Whether poor or rich, coal miner or climate activist, flood victim or policy maker, underground or underwater, we must stand up and demand change. Join the Poor People’s Campaign and bring an end to systemic racism, systemic poverty, and climate injustice. We are stronger together than we are apart—and together we can change the world.


Join The Climate Movement

With a landmark climate action agreement in place including commitments from 196 countries to fight climate change, now is the time to keep the pressure on and ensure swift action. This climate agreement wouldn’t have happened without millions of people around the world taking action. And we won’t be able to meet the ambitious goals of the Paris Agreement without millions and millions more people taking action in support of a rapid transition to clean energy. Paris was just the beginning, not the end. Let’s get to work towards a greener, cleaner future. Add your voice to the millions demanding action and sign the petition today!

Sign the Petition Now!