Where do the Carbon Pharaohs Wreak the Worst Damage?
By Jacqueline Patterson
[On October 26, 2014, the Pennsylvania chapter of Interfaith Power and Light held its annual state-wide gathering. Among the keynote speakers was Jacqueline Patterson, Director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program. Below is a condensed version of Ms. Patterson’s keynote for IPL. After the text of her talk, I will comment on why I think what she said is crucial both to the "climate movement” and to organizations working for “social justice.” -- AW, editor]
In my work throughout the country, I see that climate change and the overheating of the Earth come down worst on communities of color and low-income communities. The climate crisis itself is driven by corporations with the systemic aim to concentrate power and wealth in the hands of a privileged few. And they operate in the context of a larger social system with the same aim -- to concentrate power and wealth in the hands of a privileged few. So the impacts of climate change worsen a broad set of social, political, and economic inequities that already exist.
In Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, in 2005 communities were hit hard by Hurricane Katrina. When I first visited the community in 2010, they were still recovering from Katrina and had just been re-assaulted as they were inundated by the BP Oil Drilling Disaster. Many of the community members had lost their livelihoods as oystermen and with that, lost their way of life.
Then, in 2012, I found the same communities under siege again by Hurricane Isaac as the levees were overtaken by the storm surge and the communities were completely overtaken by flooding. When Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana asked the Army Corps of Engineers why the levees, weren’t fortified after Katrina, they stated that they used formula to decide where to prioritize levee fortification which assigned points to various areas based on economic impact. With these measures of “value” it will always be the most marginalized communities who will be on the losing end of the climate adaptation equation.
I’ve visited Navajo reservations in New Mexico and Arizona and met with multiple families living in the shadow of coal plants within a 50-mile radius of communities like Shiprock, NM. The electricity from these plants powers Las Vegas and Los Angeles, while 70% of those living on the Navajo reservation have no electricity or running water. Though these plants were built on the promises of bringing new jobs to the area, many of the men in the Navajo families have to live in another state in order to work.
Coal plants emit mercury, arsenic, lead, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide. While many Navajo families don’t have the basic necessities of life, what they do have are respiratory illnesses from ingesting pollution-laden air from these coal plants, every hour, of every day, of every week, of every month, of every year.
Then, right here in the Eastwick neighborhood of Philadelphia, we got a call last year about flooding in that community. As in many communities I’ve visited from Tunica, MS to Irvington, NJ, a developer sold a swathe of homes in a flood plain to low income families of color who, within weeks in some cases and months in others, found themselves inundated by flooding. Exacerbated by climate change, flooding from storm-water management failures and from the frequent overtaking of Cobbs Creeks’ banks, cause chronic problems for the folks in Eastwick. They have yet to be able to negotiate a comprehensive flood management plan with the powers that be.
These issues are directly linked to other issues such as voting rights and political representation. Zoning boards, public utilities commissions, and city councils are key offices. Their officials make decisions about where toxic facilities are cited; the extent to which our utilities are actively pursuing advancement of energy efficiency, lowering rates, and transitioning to clean energy. These are also the bodies that decide on permitting of large scale development projects.
The institutionalization of these systemic inequities is why, in my work, advancing solutions is about system change by shifting power and resources from the privileged few to “the people.” Therefore, in addition to working with EPA on regulations to control CO2 emissions, my work is about voting rights and campaign finance reform. It’s about making sure we have representative and accountable people in the zoning boards, the Public Utilities Commissions, and the City Councils.
We are working with communities across the country to build local economies where instead of big industry control, we have community owned solar, community owned food, community recycled waste, community initiated green schools, community organized equitable transportation systems, etc.
We are also members of groups like Interfaith Moral Action on Climate Change with our Move Our Money/Protect Our Planet campaign to move purchasing, banking, and funding from fossil fuel companies and to move fossil fuel subsidies that subsidize the ruination of our planet, into funding earth and life affirming practices like energy efficiency and clean energy!
For me as a Christian, there is no more apt model than Jesus in the Temple with the money changers -- as the example I follow in my work to ensure that profiteering does not continue to be the dominant force that trumps human, civil and earth rights as it pervasively does now. Otherwise my work is undergirded by my faith tenets of justice, mercy, altruism, and stewardship.
[I first met Ms. Patterson when I became a co-member of the Steering Committee of Interfaith Moral Action on Climate. This past summer, she pulled together workshops on Climate Justice for the 50th Anniversary observance of Mississippi Freedom Summer. When I saw these workshops on the program announcement, I was drawn to go the gathering in Jackson, Mississippi.
[The workshops clarified for me the relationship between “social justice” and “ecological sanity.” The connection needs to be emphasized because many ”social justice” organizations, including many in the Jewish and other faith communities, act as if the climate crisis has nothing to do with social justice. At the same time, many “environmental” organizations ignore social justice. Ever since Ms. Patterson’s Freedom Summer workshops, , I have been using the phrase “eco-social justice” to describe our work.
[This condensed version of Ms. Patterson’s keynote for IPL makes the connection clear, and points out its importance. Indeed, if the “climate movement” and its religiously and spiritually rooted elements are ever to win the crucial cultural and political transformations that we seek, drawing together these “separate” concerns and constituencies will be necessary. Out of such connections can come the new communities of both resistance and resilience: Resistance to the onrush of climate disaster, resilience when the effects of global scorching crash into us, as did Superstorm Sandy and the California drought.-- AW, editor.]