S. E. Williams

“If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.”

James Baldwin

I recently watched a compelling conversation with Dr. Mustafa Santiago Ali who serves as the Vice President of Environmental Justice, Climate, and Community Revitalization for the National Wildlife Federation. During the discussion he reminded listeners of the opening quote I used to anchor this week’s commentary.

The timing could not have been more appropriate due to the recent release of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report—considered the first major scientific review of climate change since 2013.

The report “is a code red for humanity,” declared UN Secretary General António Guterres in response to the IPCC findings which, though not surprising, are sobering.

Key points highlighted in the report include an official recognition that the past five years were the hottest on record since 1850; the rate of rise in sea levels have nearly tripled compared with the period 1901 to 1971; acknowledgement, by 90 percent, human influence is likely—very likely—the main driver of diminishing glaciers since the 1990s as well as the decrease in Arctic sea-ice;  and heat extremes, including heatwaves, are more frequent and intense while cold extremes have been less frequent and less severe since the 1950s.

The report’s unwelcomed revelation as summarized by the BBC is, “The warming we’ve experienced to date has made changes to many of our planetary support systems that are irreversible on timescales of centuries to millennia.”

Regarding the changing climate, in addition to his role with the National Wildlife Federation, Dr. Ali is also founder of  Revitalization Strategies, which is focused on moving vulnerable communities from “surviving to thriving.”

During a discussion on Climate One’s Real Talk: Racism and Climate just over a year ago, he  highlighted several salient points which included how the Environmental Protection Agency has often fallen short relative to addressing environmental needs of minority communities. He stated, “Anytime policy is being created it should be coming from local people, local communities, local organizations,” stressing how communities should be allowed to speak for themselves.  

He added that if politicians at all levels of government would just understand this, “We would stop wasting money and we would stop making mistakes by creating policy that is not meeting the needs of everyday people.”

While remarking on a perceived gulf between environmentalists and the racial justice movement, he stressed there is a way to find common ground. This includes highlighting that, “The same pollution that is killing Black and Brown folks in the city is the same pollution that is impacting the national parks that you say that you care about so much,” he noted adding, “So, you should be standing in solidarity.”

The environmental impacts from air pollution, including the severe weather and the economic upheaval from it, impacts Black and minority communities, “not only first, but worst.”

If the world has declared the climate crisis “Code Red,” then for Blacks and other vulnerable groups, the emergency is at a higher level, because historically  when things are bad for most Whites, they are near catastrophic for people of color. 

There are many things that result in these communities due to their being more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and most are the result of institutional and structural racism beginning with “heat islands” which produce higher daytime temperatures and reduced nighttime cooling caused in part by paved and “impermeable” surfaces like roads, and parking lots coupled with a lack of trees and  vegetation along with other contributing factors.

There is also the reality that many Black and other minority communities are located near power plants, petrochemical plants, industrial factories, and various other sources of pollution including neighborhoods and schools located near highways and other highly traversed roadways. A recent study revealed Blacks breathe in 56 percent  more particulate matter than they produce from their consumption.

(source: climatecommunication.yale.edu)

Despite some who claim the Black community is disengaged on the issue of climate change, research shows just the opposite. Blacks and Hispanics are actually more engaged than other groups on this issue according to a study by the Yale Program on Climate Communication. The study also found these same groups are more willing than Whites to join a campaign to convince elected officials to take action to reduce global warming.

(source: climatecommunication.yale.edu)

Minorities know we are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine as it relates to the changing climate, and as a result, we must elevate our action on this issue—cause some “good trouble”. 

One of the ways to do this is by continuing to fight even harder for a just and equitable recovery from COVID-19 and that fight must include a community-based focus to mitigate the impacts of a changing climate. We can do this by helping to lead the movement for clean energy that includes more clean jobs for those in our communities and less pollution. There are ways, for example, to offset the impact of heat islands. We must also continue fighting for reduced carbon emissions in these communities and the list goes on.

There are lots of ways to make our voices heard. They include among others, attending planning commission meetings, board and city council meetings; seeking appointments to local commissions where decisions impacting the local environment are made, running for office if local representatives are unresponsive, educating friends and family members on the issues of the changing climate and its impact on minority communities; and most important—register and vote. The future is in our hands.

Of course, this is just my opinion. I’m keeping it real.