Climate Change Is Not A Future Problem For Communities of Color. It Is a NOW Problem.
By Jennifer Lai-Peterson
The discourse around climate change today is not about whether (no pun intended), but when. Even oil and gas companies are openly stating in federal court that they “accept the consensus in the scientific communities on climate change. Some climate scientists say we have about 20 years before catastrophic changes are upon us. Others say due to fracking, “we’re almost there today.”
For communities of color, however, the when is now.
“It’s not about one or ten or twenty years before climate change. Nah. It’s happening right now in the Black community. We’ve been dying,” a Black elder who survived Hurricane Katrina, Curtis Muhammad, told me recently. “We live in the low-lying flood areas. We’re in Cancer Alley. We are the canaries in the coal mine.”
Indeed, communities of color have long been “living on the front lines of both the causes and effects of climate change,” says Monique Harden, Assistant Director of Law and Policy at the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice (DSCEJ). Studies show polluting industries that release both toxic and climate pollution are disproportionately located near communities of color. In addition, there is little disagreement today that due to structural inequities based on race, communities of color continue to be hit “first and worst” in the climate crisis.
“Cancer Alley” in Louisiana is one example. It is an area that stretches along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and the Gulf of Mexico with over 200 petrochemical facilities. African American and Indigenous communities bear the brunt of that pollution. Such pollution can cause not only asthma and cancer, but also the warming of the planet and the creation of stronger hurricanes that wreak havoc on communities of color in the Gulf of Region. “These are all of one piece,” Ms. Harden concludes.
Ms. Harden’s group, the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice (DSCEJ), is leading local efforts to stop a proposed gas power plant that is planned near predominantly African American and Vietnamese American neighborhoods in East New Orleans. Residents of East New Orleans continue to struggle to rebuild their communities after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and levee failure. Their struggle is difficult not only because of the hurricane, but because of the inequities in governmental disaster funds that have skipped over them. Adding to this injustice, Entergy, a utility corporation, is seeking environmental permits for the gas power plant, which would allow on an annual basis more than one million pounds of toxic air pollution near homes and schools in East New Orleans and over one billion pounds of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.
“Climate science indicates a level at which greenhouse gas emissions should be cut back to mitigate climate change. Environmental science tells us that there is no safe level for many of the pollutants that are spewed into the air. How long would it take to establish laws and policies that respond to this science if, on a national and global scale, predominantly white children and families bore the brunt of all the risks and harm of climate change and toxic pollution?” Ms. Harden asked in a recent discussion.
Communities of color face tremendous challenges during and after climate-related extreme weather events. For example, communities of color often have fewer resources to evacuate. And when evacuated, communities of color are displaced for long periods of time without governmental recognition of their fundamental right to return. In this period of displacement, the machinations of “disaster capitalism” then descend and the wholesale dismantlement of public systems (schools, utilities, housing) is suddenly on the table.
It is beyond the scope of this post to detail the tireless and brilliant work of all those in the Gulf South, Puerto Rico, and Houston who fight this fight every single day. Instead, what I lift up today is a foundational principle that has stayed with me through the years: Nothing about us without us is for us.
This was the rallying cry of Black survivors of Hurricane Katrina. The people most affected by the impacts of climate change must be at the center of the response to the climate crisis. Those most affected must lead our collective efforts. And those leaders and efforts should be identified and expanded now.
Jennifer Lai-Peterson is a Senior Attorney at Advancement Project. She lived and worked in New Orleans before and after Hurricane Katrina. Along with Judith Browne Dianis, Marielena Hincapie, and Saket Soni, she co-authored An Injustice For All: Workers’ Lives in the Reconstruction of New Orleans, a report on race and labor after Katrina, based on interviews with over a thousand Black, Latinx, and Native workers.
 Umair Irfan, Chevron just agreed in court that humans cause climate change, setting a new legal precedent, VOX, Mar. 28, 2018, https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2018/3/28/17152804/climate-change-federal-court-chevron. Sharon Kelly, World May Hit 2 Degrees of Warming in 10-15 Years Thanks to Fracking, Says Cornell Scientist, DESMOG, Apr. 11, 2018, https://www.desmogblog.com/2018/04/11/climate-change-two-degree-warming-fracking-natural-gas-rush-ingraffea.
 Monique Harden, Wendell Pierce, and Gary Rivlin, An Unequal Recovery in New Orleans: Racial Disparities Grow in City 10 Years After Katrina, Democracy Now, Aug. 28, 2015, https://www.democracynow.org/2015/8/28/an_unequal_recovery_in_new_orleans (“Harden Interview”).
 Clean Air Task Force for Clear the Air, Air of Injustice: African Americans and Power Plant Pollution, 2002; J. Andrew Hoerner and Nia Robinson, A Climate of Change: African Americans, Global Warming, and a Just Climate Policy for the U.S., Environmental Justice & Climate Change Initiative, 2008; Environmental Justice and Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform, Who’s in Danger? Race, Poverty, and Chemical Disasters: A Democratic Analysis of Chemical Disaster Vulnerability Zones, 2014; Liam Downey and Brian Hawkins, Race, Income and Environmental Inequality in the United States, SOCIOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE, December 1, 2008, 51 (4): 759-781.
 Dr. Beverly Wright, Guest Opinion: What Entergy Wants Versus What New Orleans Needs, The Times-Picayune, Mar. 2, 2018, http://www.nola.com/opinions/index.ssf/2018/03/entergy_power_plant_2.html.
 Jeff Adelson, New Orleans Segregation, Racial Disparity Likely Worsened by Post Katrina Policy, Report Says, The New Orleans Advocate, Apr. 5, 2018, http://www.theadvocate.com/new_orleans/news/article_92b962f0-3866-11e8-a851-2bbb256e2f49.html.
 See, e.g., Naomi Klein, The Battle For Paradise, The Intercept, Mar. 20, 2018, https://theintercept.com/2018/03/20/puerto-rico-hurricane-maria-recovery/.