Environmental Justice Grabs a Megaphone in the Climate Movement

Native American tribes, islanders and communities of color led the toughest environmental fights of 2017.

For a movement historically led by white males, advocates from low-income and minority communities across the country are providing a powerful, new voice on environmental issues. Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

For a movement historically led by white males, advocates from low-income and minority communities across the country are providing a powerful, new voice on environmental issues. Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Thenjiwe McHarris of the Movement for Black Lives leaned into the microphone and, with a finger pointed firmly at her audience, delivered a powerful message to the 200,000 people gathered in Washington, D.C., for the People's Climate March.

"There is no climate justice without racial justice," McHarris boomed as the temperature reached 91 degrees, tying a record for late April. "There is no climate justice without gender justice. There is no climate justice without queer justice."

2017 Year in Review Series

For a movement historically led by white males who have rallied around images of endangered polar bears and been more inclined to talk about parts per million than racial discrimination, McHarris's message was a wake-up call.

"We must respect the leadership of black people, of indigenous people, of people of color and front line communities who are most impacted by climate change," she said. "This must be a deliberate, strategic choice made as a means to not only end the legacy of injustice in this country, but an effort to protect the Earth."

From the Native American standoff against a crude oil pipeline at Standing Rock to leadership at this year's United Nations climate conference by Fiji, a small island nation whose very existence is threatened by sea level rise, 2017 was the year the needs of the dispossessed washed like a wave to the forefront of the environmental movement.

  • The Quinault Indian Nation led a successful fight against a large new oil export terminal in Hoquiam, Washington, where the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of a coalition of environmental groups led by the tribe in January.
     
  • California will invest $1 billion in rooftop solar on the apartments of low-income renters after Communities for a Better Environment, a group dedicated to reducing pollution in low-income communities and communities of color, pushed for the legislation.
     
  • When the EPA tried to delay new regulations against smog, states, public health advocates, environmental organizations and community groups including West Harlem Environmental Action sued, and the EPA withdrew its attempted delay.
     
  • At a recent EPA hearing on the Clean Power Plan, nearly a dozen representatives from local NAACP chapters testified on how low-income communities and communities of color would be disproportionately impacted by pollution from coal-fired power plants if the Obama-era policies to reduce power plant emissions were repealed. 
     
  • Democratic lawmakers introduced new legislation on environmental justice in October that would codify an existing, Clinton-era executive order into law. The bill would add new protections for communities already impacted by pollution by accounting for cumulative emissions from existing facilities when issuing new permits. The bill likely has little chance of passing in the current, Republican-led House and Senate, but it could inspire similar action at the state level. One week after the bill was introduced, Virginia established its own environmental justice council charged with advising the governor on policies to limit environmental harm to disadvantaged communities.

"We are at a point where we have crossed the threshold beyond which we can not return to a period where environmental justice is not a part of the conversation," Patrice Simms, vice president of litigation for the environmental law organization Earthjustice, said.

Driven by pollution concerns, advocates from low-income and minority communities across the country are providing a powerful, new voice on environmental issues.

"I didn't become an environmentalist because I was worried about global warming [or] because I was concerned about penguins or polar bears," Sen. Cory Booker, who introduced the recent environmental justice bill, said. "I became an environmentalist because I was living in Newark. I was an activist and concerned about issues of poverty and disadvantage."

For Native Americans, the need to address environmental justice and threats to tribal sovereignty, are long overdue.

"If this country continues to encroach and continues to threaten our land rights and human rights, something is going to give," said Dave Archambault, former chairman of the Standing Rock tribe, who led his people in opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline. "I can't tell you what the next fight is going to be, but I know that if this country continues to treat a population the way it has, not just recently but the past 200 years, something has to happen."

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