As Climate-Driven Crises Mount, New Activists Are Created

January 9, 2020, 7:31 PM UTC

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The world is burning. And drowning. And fighting about it.

So it’s welcome news that a new crop of environmental activists are working to center communities of color in the climate change conversation, to mitigate risks, seek long overdue justice, or simply contribute to an environmental movement once seen to be the purview of wealthy, white society.

If there ever was a case for radical inclusiveness, this is it—and, it’s worth noting, that climate activist Greta Thunberg herself is making it. “Africa is so hugely underreported when it comes to the climate crisis (as well as everything else…),” she tweeted recently. “If you have a platform—help amplify the voices and stories from Africa. Africa has a key role in the fight for climate justice. Please acknowledge and share their perspective.” And then, she shared their perspectives.

The first installment of the “Black In The Time of Climate Change” series, OneZero, The Guardian’s technology publication, profiles four environmental justice activists who are fighting for communities of color in work that links to climate activism across the globe.

Consider the story of Boynton, a working-class community in southwest Detroit, intentionally created by discriminatory housing practices. Boynton is adjacent to a Marathon oil refinery. The sky over Boynton is a ghastly orange, acid rain is the norm, and the population suffers disproportionately from deadly respiratory disease and Type I diabetes. Vince Martin, an Afro-Cuban who moved to Boynton with his family when he was three, says he’s seen the neighborhood decline over the past three decades as the Marathon campus steadily grew into a 250-acre tank farm. It’s now Michigan’s most polluted zip code, and some 71% of the population is Black.

He’s now an environmental activist. “Eventually a lightbulb goes off and you see that your community is a sacrifice,” he tells OneZero. “We’re actually Dr Frankenstein’s laboratory in Michigan. How you just going to sit here using these people as guinea pigs?”

While Indigenous people have long been ignored as environmental stewards and activists, there are signs that they are getting the attention they deserve.

Here’s just one: High Country News, an award-winning media outfit that covers life in the American West with a dedication to Indigenous issues, is part of ClimateDesk, a wide-ranging journalistic collaboration between a broad group of outfits, including The Atlantic, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, CityLab, Grist, The Guardian, HuffPost, Medium, Mother Jones, National Observer, Newsweek, Reveal, Slate, The Weather Channel, Undark, Wired and Yale Environment 360.

And it seems the youth will lead the way.

HCN recently covered the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) 2019 Convention in Fairbanks, Alaska, one of the largest meetings of Indigenous people in the U.S. The big story: Two teen climate change activists—17-year-old Quannah Chasing Horse (Hans Gwich’in and Lakota Sioux) and 15-year-old Nanieezh Peter (Neetsaii Gwich’in and Diné)—successfully lobbied the Federation to pass a resolution on climate change action, and persuaded them to create a climate change task force within the AFN. The resolution will center climate change issues in the legislative work the AFN does within the Alaska legislature and the U.S. Congress.

I’d love to see them at Davos, wouldn’t you?

And then there’s the rest of us.

New York Times opinion writer Charles M. Blow declared in his most recent column that he’d become a “radical environmentalist,” a label that until recently had been embraced almost entirely by wealthier, white liberals. It’s a master class in becoming aware. “[S]omething happened to me last year,” he begins. He describes a slow-drip of influences—Greta Thunberg’s United Nations speech, Bill Nye the Science Guy’s dramatic and f-bomb exhortation on a burning world, the overwhelming science. Perhaps it was simply becoming the parent of newly adult children and waking up to the enormity of the problems facing the next generation, he writes.

But he’s noticed how the world has changed during his lifetime. Growing up poor, his family produced almost all their own food, and what they bought was largely unpackaged. Now, he’s part of the problem.

“Poor people were the original recyclers before recycling was the norm. Waste was for the wealthy. For that reason we had little trash. When I thought about that in the context of the outrageous amount of trash my family and I now produce, I felt ashamed.”

So now he looks for ways to reduce his personal environmental impact as an individual and an advocate with a big megaphone. “It seems to me that environmentalism involves not only the changes we personally make, but also proselytizing, getting more people to join us,” he says with the zeal of the newly converted.

“I think that the only way to prevent the radical alteration of our planet is to commit to a radical alteration of our own behavior,” he says.

Ellen McGirt

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On Background

How the medical profession sees black women in pain I will warn you now: This essay is rough. It is an excerpt from Thick: And Other Essays, an essential book by Tressie McMillan Cottom, an associate professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University. It begins with a horrific story about her treatment by medical professionals during a suddenly troubled pregnancy and ends in tragedy. “When the medical profession systematically denies the existence of black women’s pain, underdiagnoses our pain, refuses to alleviate or treat our pain, healthcare marks us as incompetent bureaucratic subjects,” she writes. “Then it serves us accordingly.”

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On Being


“Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time. Everyone in this room is in one way or another aware of that. We are in a revolutionary situation, no matter how unpopular that word has become in this country. The society in which we live is desperately menaced, not by Khrushchev, but from within. To any citizen of this country who figures himself as responsible—and particularly those of you who deal with the minds and hearts of young people— must be prepared to ‘go for broke.’ Or to put it another way, you must understand that in the attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty, when it is operating not only in the classroom but in society, you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, and the most determined resistance. There is no point in pretending that this won’t happen.”

— James Baldwin, "A Talk To Teachers," October 16, 1963

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