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Environmental justice, one neighborhood at a time

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James Mills | Feb 16, 2010 02:34 PM

With the exception of vocal critics who deny the science behind climate change, most of the world is painfully aware that our industrial activities over recent decades have raised the earth’s average temperature. Our warming atmosphere is putting at risk life as we know it, prompting the people of the world to action. But long-standing social artifacts of institutional racism have created a deep rift in the debate over climate change that now threatens the establishment of environmentally just solutions.

At the United Nations Climate Change conference in Copenhagen, the question was: who must invest financial resources and stunt industrial growth to correct climate change? As always, the battle lines divide the interests of the rich with those of poor. And because wealth in our world is inequitably distributed among people of color, the debate over climate change falls also along the lines of race.

It’s fair to suggest that the wealthiest nations of the world have produced the greenhouse gases that cause what we now call global warming. And clearly, as evidenced by recent catastrophic weather events that include both flooding and droughts, poor, mostly non-white agrarian nations will bare the brunt of a worldwide environmental meltdown. People of color currently living under economically depressed circumstances are the most vulnerable to sudden shifts in temperature, loss of available farmland and rising seawater.

A 2008 report by the NGO Minority Rights Group International shows that minority populations around the world most often live in substandard housing, occupy low lying regions prone to flooding and receive little in the way of state provided weather mitigation services.  And a similar report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changes states: “Impacts of climate change are likely to be felt most acutely not only by the poor, but also by certain segments of the population, such as the elderly, the very young, the powerless, indigenous people and recent immigrants, particularly if they are linguistically isolated, i.e. those most dependent on public support.”

The poorest nations of the world are crying out for environmental justice -- the fair and equitable treatment of all people, races and economies regarding the development of environmental laws, regulations and policies. Most vocal among them are those countries of Africa, South America and Asia where large populations rely on the stability of land and water resources for the production of food and to form the basis of their industrial development.  Having done less to contribute to the problems caused by a worldwide rise of greenhouse gas emissions, many believe these nations should assume far less of the burden to reverse the effects of climate change.

Advocates of environmental justice aim to balance the scales by compelling wealthy nations to not only reduce their greenhouse gas emissions but to allocate funds so that poor nations can adopt practices of environmentally sustainable economic growth into the future.

The conversation in Copenhagen reached an impasse, perhaps weighted down by the sheer magnitude of a problem whose solution lies in the tiniest details of community-based initiatives – not in sweeping international accords. In order to curb climate change, carbon dioxide reductions, for example, along with all environmental pollutants must be required not just of nations, but of municipalities, industrial institutions and individuals. Successful initiatives in the United States over the past decade demonstrate that small regional groups can correct specific instances where a minority population is disproportionally affected by industrial pollution and racially indifferent environmental policies. It’s possible that when applied on a global scale, local initiatives may provide the climate change solutions we seek.

East Palo Alto, California is a community of 30,000. Populated primarily by African-Americans and Hispanics, this Silicon Valley enclave suffers a poverty rate of 19 percent. In 1964 Romic Environmental Technologies opened a facility that collected and recycled environmentally harmful materials including items such as solvents, antifreeze, batteries, light tubes and motor oil.  With limited neighborhood opposition Romic conducted its business for several years with little regard for public safety or environmental protection.

As reported by Urban Habitat, a journal for social and environmental justice, Romic was allowed to pollute the surrounding area for years -- until a group of local activists took a stand. Youth United for Community Action (YUCA) launched a series of protests to demonstrate the harm being done to the environment and nearby residents. Circumstances reached a head when a Romic employee, a Filipino man named Rodrigo Cruz, was injured while cleaning a tank used to store toxic materials, without proper training or equipment. In 2005 the company was made to pay fines starting at $849,500. Cruz, who suffered permanent brain damage, reached a settlement with Romic. Additional fines, followed by others totaling millions of dollars, went to cover many of the administrative costs the Department of Toxic Substance Control incurred in its investigation.

Members of YUCA, including Cruz, continued to apply pressure on both the city of East Palo Alto and the state of California. Injuries of other Romic employees and a major chemical spill in 2006 finally compelled the DTSC to take action. In 2007 the agency denied the renewal of the company’s permit to operate, citing its poor compliance record, and the facility was closed.

It didn’t take an international convention to achieve environmental justice in East Palo Alto. When a community is united against its own mistreatment, the industrial interests of a nation, a large corporation or even a small municipality will pale in comparison to the needs of the environment and those who live within it.  Where residents are empowered to act despite economic challenges exacerbated by the enduring legacy of racial discrimination, they can impose penalties and exact compensation for past wrongdoings. Since emissions of toxic chemicals or greenhouse gases occur on the local level, there is where we must look to find solutions.

Appointed by President Obama, the first African-American head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson, has declared that policies must shift to prevent racially segregated neighborhoods from enduring undue ecological harm.

“There are too many places in this country where pollution and environmental degradation fall disproportionately on low-income and minority communities,” Jackson said via video at the third annual State of the Environmental Justice in America 2009 conference in Arlington, VA. “People have fallen ill with diseases like asthma and cancer…We can’t stand by and accept those disparities.”

An international meeting of world leaders like the one in Copenhagen will do little to change the course of environmental justice. With so many disparate interests and agendas it would be virtually impossible to reach a binding universal consensus. Every community must take it upon themselves to protect the environment in which they live. We may one day agree that collective action must be taken to protect the interests of ethnic and racial minorities at the fringe of the global economy. But as in East Palo Alto, it’s local initiatives that must address the very specific acts of environmental harm that disproportionately impact the poor and disenfranchised populations of the world.

James Edward Mills is a freelance journalist and an independent media producer based in Madison, Wisconsin. Originally from Los Angeles with a degree in Anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley, James now makes frequent trips to the West to produce stories for print, radio and the Internet on racial diversity in the conservation movement as well as initiatives to expose more people of color to wild and scenic places. See his Web site at joytripproject.org.

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