Black Environmentalists Are Organizing to Save the Planet From Injustice
By Rachel Ramirez
"I can't breathe." These were among the final words that George Floyd and Eric Garner gasped before their deaths at the hands of white police officers. That plea has become part of the current rallying cry for racial justice and an end to police brutality in the U.S. But for black people living near industrial facilities, the phrase has an additional layer of meaning: a reminder of their disproportionate pollution burden.
"While many in power seemed surprised that COVID-19 is killing twice as many black Americans, those of us in the environmental justice movement know that the health impacts of cumulative and disproportionate levels of pollution in our communities have created underlying health conditions that contribute to our higher COVID-19 mortality rates," said Peggy Shepard, co-founder and executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, said at a virtual press conference on Monday.
Shepard is part of the National Black Environmental Justice Network (NBEJN), a national coalition of black environmental justice groups and grassroots activists founded in 1991. Although the network took a hiatus in 2006 after executive director Damu Smith passed away, the network just announced that it's making a comeback against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic and renewed calls to fight racial injustice.
The network's mission sends a clear message: Environmental injustice is not a single issue. Rather, it's a constellation of issues including discrimination in housing, jobs, and healthcare.
It's impossible to untangle black communities' current risks from America's long history of racist policies and practices. Discriminatory policies such as banks' government-sanctioned refusal to approve home loans and insurance for people in communities of color, also known as redlining, forced black families into neighborhoods more likely to be exposed to industrial pollution and extreme heat. Now these same communities face a surge in unemployment and poverty rates as a result of the economic downturn brought on by the pandemic, and they are also disproportionately dying from the novel coronavirus as a result of a lack of health insurance, unequal access to test sites, and higher workplace exposure via employment in essential services. As if that wasn't enough, a recent Harvard study also found a link between air pollution and death from COVID-19.
Given the systemic conditions that disproportionately expose black people to the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, and other worsening crises, NBEJN members — including the network's co-chairs, environmental justice pioneers Robert Bullard and Beverly Wright — say they are now looking to bring in black lawyers, engineers, leaders, and other experts to join forces to help create an equitable green stimulus package, take on the fossil fuel industry, and fight the Trump administration's seemingly endless orders to weaken environmental protections.
"We see these environmental rollbacks as not just fast-tracking project permits, but as a fast-track to the emergency room and cemeteries," said Bullard, an author and professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University. "The NBEJN is about dismantling systemic racism, and we're talking about turning the dominant paradigm on its head."
Network leaders say COVID-19 recovery legislation could be an opportunity for lawmakers to pass a robust green stimulus package that would focus on environmental justice. Such a green stimulus package, the coalition said, needs to address core issues of systemic racism by, for example, providing green jobs to communities of color.
"Green stimulus packages often only look at protecting the world, but not protecting people like us," said Wright, executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. "Any stimulus package dealing with transportation to housing or whatever they're talking about doing will have to include us and need to be viewed with equity and justice lenses."
Even if an equitable green stimulus package makes it through Congress and the White House, there will still be a lot more work to be done. Bullard said that even if the Democratic party wins the presidential election or takes control of the Senate, it will take time to reverse Trump-era environmental policy damages, including the country's withdrawal from the 2016 Paris Agreement. Even then, he added, policymakers will need to take additional steps to curb greenhouse gas emissions and center frontline communities. And NBEJN leaders say the network will stick around to make sure those steps are taken.
"Racism is baked into America's DNA," Bullard said. "NBEJN is needed today to fight these conversing threats and underlying conditions that are denying black people the right to breathe and the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness enjoyed by white America."
This story originally appeared in Grist and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Kristen Pope
Melting and crumbling glaciers are largely responsible for rising sea levels, so learning more about how glaciers shrink is vital to those who hope to save coastal cities and preserve wildlife.
Groans, Creaks, Icebergs’ Calving Splashes<p>Oskar Glowacki already knew that melting glacial ice sounds like frying bacon. As ice bubbles burst, anyone nearby can hear crackling and popping, said Glowacki, a postdoctoral scholar at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Using hydrophones, he and other scientists now can make more nuanced measurements of how a changing climate sounds underwater, from the groans, creaks and splashes of a calving iceberg to the changes in whale songs as the ocean warms.</p><p>Glowacki recently used a pair of hydrophones to study the underwater world of glaciers, publishing his findings in <a href="https://www.the-cryosphere.net/14/1025/2020/" target="_blank">The Cryosphere</a>. He and co-author Grant B. Deane measured glacier retreat by <a href="https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2020/07/melting-glaciers-sound-like-frying-bacon/" target="_blank">recording the sounds of ice</a> – from small chunks to enormous slabs – falling off the glacier and splashing into the water.</p><p>During the summer of 2016, Glowacki's team placed two hydrophones near Hansbreen Glacier in Hornsund Fjord, Svalbard. For a month and a half, they recorded sounds, also using three time-lapse cameras to collect images – including the "drop height" (how far the ice fell into the water) – so they could compare photos to the recordings. The team created a formula to represent the relationship between the size of a piece of ice falling from a glacier and the sound it makes underwater, also accounting for the pieces of ice falling from varying heights. (Hear an example of the sound an iceberg makes while calving <a href="https://soundcloud.com/user-248456662/iceberg-calving-hansbreen-glacier" target="_blank">here</a>.)</p>
Unlocking Information About Antarctic Ice Shelf<p>Other researchers also are using hydrophones to learn more about crumbling glaciers. Bob Dziak, research oceanographer with the NOAA/Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory <a href="https://www.pmel.noaa.gov/acoustics" target="_blank">acoustics research group</a>, captured a massive calving event of the Nansen Ice Shelf in Antarctica with a hydrophone. He published the results with colleagues in <a href="https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/feart.2019.00183/full" target="_blank">Frontiers in Earth Science</a></p><p>On April 7, 2016, satellite images showed a massive calving event had occurred on the ice shelf. The paper described it as the "first large scale calving event in >30 years."</p><p>However, once Dziak and colleagues delved into the data from three hydrophones deployed 60 kilometers east of the ice shelf, they uncovered a series of "icequakes" from January to early March 2016. He and other researchers believe that much of the ice actually broke free in mid-January to February, but it remained in the same location until an April storm – which their paper described as the "largest low-pressure storm recorded in the previous seven months" – broke the ice free.</p><p>"We suspected that the icebergs broke apart but remained in place – kind of pinned in place – until a major storm with high winds passed through the area and, finally, it was that last push that pushed the icebergs out to sea," Dziak says.</p><p>He and his co-authors wrote that "fortuitous timing and proximity of the hydrophone deployment presented a rare opportunity to study cryogenic signals and ocean ambient sounds of a large-scale ice shelf calving and iceberg formation event."</p>
Listening to Songs of Humpback Whales<p><a href="https://www.mbari.org/" target="_blank">Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute</a> studies the ocean, including its acoustics. One of the institute's projects involves examining the soundscape of California's Monterey Bay, including sounds from animals, humans, weather, and geologic processes like earthquakes. The researchers once even recorded an under-sea landslide. They also focus on recording and analyzing the <a href="http://www.mbari.org/humpback-song/" target="_blank">songs of humpback whales</a>. Male humpback whales' songs can be over 15 minutes in length, and they can be repeated for long periods of time – even hours. Listening to these songs and analyzing them can provide unique insights into the lives of these complex animals.</p><p>"Any time we want to study marine mammals, sound gives us a window into their lives because they use sound for all of their essential life activities, really," says institute biological oceanographer John Ryan. "Communication, foraging, reproduction, navigation – depending on the species, of course."</p><p>Previously, scientists had thought singing occurred only during courtship and mating, but now they think whales may also use song while migrating and hunting. They know song has a crucial role in the whales' lives.</p><p>"There's a whole other dimension to humpback whale song," Ryan says. "It is a mode of cultural transmission in this species. They learn songs from each other. They share songs as a population, and when populations mix and mingle, they learn new ideas, they explore with their song, improvise, and it's a real essential part of their culture."</p>
By William S. Lynn, Arian Wallach and Francisco J. Santiago-Ávila
A number of conservationists claim cats are a zombie apocalypse for biodiversity that need to be removed from the outdoors by "any means necessary" – coded language for shooting, trapping and poisoning. Various media outlets have portrayed cats as murderous superpredators. Australia has even declared an official "war" against cats.
Faulty Scientific Reasoning<p>In our <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.13527" target="_blank">most recent publication</a> in the journal Conservation Biology, we examine an error of reasoning that props up the moral panic over cats.</p><p>Scientists do not simply collect data and analyze the results. They also establish a logical argument to explain what they observe. Thus, the reasoning behind a factual claim is equally important to the observations used to make that claim. And it is this reasoning about cats where claims about their threat to global biodiversity founder. In our analysis, we found it happens because many scientists take specific, local studies and overgeneralize those findings to the world at large.</p><p>Even when specific studies are good overall, projecting the combined "results" onto the world at large can cause unscientific overgeneralizations, particularly when <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2015.01.003" target="_blank">ecological context is ignored</a>. It is akin to pulling a quote out of context and then assuming you understand its meaning.</p>
Ways Forward<p>So how might citizens and scientists chart a way forward to a more nuanced understanding of cat ecology and conservation?</p><p>First, those examining this issue on all sides can acknowledge that both the well-being of cats and the survival of threatened species are legitimate concerns.</p><p>Second, cats, like any other predator, affect their ecological communities. Whether that impact is good or bad is a complex value judgment, not a scientific fact.</p><p>Third, there is a need for a more rigorous approach to the study of cats. Such an approach must be mindful of the importance of ecological context and avoid the pitfalls of faulty reasoning. It also means resisting <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.13126" target="_blank">the siren call of a silver (lethal) bullet</a>.</p>
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The number of forest fires in Brazil's Amazon rainforest increased 28% in July in comparison to last year, the country's National Institute for Space Research reported Saturday.
Government Measures Not Enough<p>On July 16, the Brazilian government banned burning in the Pantanal wetlands and the Amazon forest for four months.</p><p>President Bolsonaro also issued an order in May for the military to coordinate environmental actions in the Amazon.</p><p>But experts say the fire numbers indicate the government's response has not been effective. The deforestation index also remained high this year until July, compared to the last couple of years, according to Carlos Nobre, a researcher at the Advanced Studies Institute in the State University of Sao Paulo.</p>
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By Johnny Wood
What better place to build a Doomsday Vault than the remote, snow-covered islands of Norway's Arctic Svalbard? Sitting around 1,000 kilometers from the North Pole, the facility is buried in permafrost to protect the precious seed samples housed there. But a freak heatwave is causing the region's ice to melt.
Deep Trouble?<p>The <a href="https://www.sciencealert.com/here-s-what-it-s-like-inside-the-doomsday-vault-that-stores-every-known-crop-on-the-planet" target="_blank">Svalbard Global Seed Vault</a> – also known as the Doomsday Vault – is a gigantic bunker, sitting deep inside a mountain surrounded by snowy wastelands. The facility stores close to <a href="https://www.seedvault.no/about/the-facility/" target="_blank">900,000 seed samples</a> from around the world and acts as a sort of back-up plan for agriculture, should disaster render parts of the planet unlivable or the world suffer a catastrophe, such as nuclear war or extreme climate change.</p><p>It's been described as an "<a href="https://www.newscientist.com/article/2235116-svalbard-doomsday-vault-gets-first-big-seed-deposit-since-upgrade/" target="_blank">insurance policy for food security</a>."</p><p>Inside the vault, <a href="https://www.sciencealert.com/here-s-what-it-s-like-inside-the-doomsday-vault-that-stores-every-known-crop-on-the-planet" target="_blank">temperatures are kept below minus 18℃</a>, cold enough to keep the seed samples safe for at least 200 years, even without backup power. But climate change is causing problems for the vault.</p><p>In 2016, which was the <a href="https://climate.nasa.gov/news/2841/2018-fourth-warmest-year-in-continued-warming-trend-according-to-nasa-noaa/" target="_blank">warmest year on record according to NASA</a>, soaring temperatures caused <a href="https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/05/20/doomsday-arctic-seed-vault-breached-permafrost-melts/" target="_blank">meltwater to breach the vault's entrance tunnel</a>. While no seeds were damaged, the <a href="https://www.sciencealert.com/svalbard-home-of-the-doomsday-vault-just-recorded-its-highest-ever-temperature" target="_blank">floodwater left an expensive repair bill</a> and tarnished the vault's reputation as impregnable to natural or manmade disasters.<span></span><br></p>
The Heat Is On<p>Warming in the islands has been underway for some time. Figures for 2017 show average temperatures are between 3-5℃ hotter than in 1971, according to the <a href="https://www.miljodirektoratet.no/globalassets/publikasjoner/M1242/M1242.pdf" target="_blank">Climate in Svalbard 2100</a> report, with the largest increases affecting the inner fjords.</p><p><span></span>Between 2071 and 2100, average temperatures throughout the archipelago will increase by between 7-10℃, the report predicts, shortening the snow season and causing loss of near-surface permafrost.</p><p><span></span>What's happening in Svalbard is symptomatic of wider changes impacting the Arctic expanse, which is <a href="https://www.upi.com/Science_News/2018/12/12/NOAA-Arctic-warming-at-twice-the-rate-of-the-rest-of-the-planet/5141544580754/" target="_blank">warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet</a>. Parts of the <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2019GL082187" target="_blank">Canadian Arctic are thawing 70 years earlier than predicted</a>, scientists from the University of Alaska Fairbanks found, a sign that climate change could be happening faster than first thought.</p><p>As warmer-than-average summers destabilize permafrost, much of which has lain frozen for millennia, methane and other gases trapped in the ice could be released at scale, accelerating climate change. In turn, warmer temperatures would lead to further permafrost loss.<br><br>Melting ice, on land and at sea, <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/updates/11-arctic-species-affected-climate-change" target="_blank">destroys animal habitats for species like polar bears and Arctic foxes</a>, which use their snowy white coats as camouflage either to hunt for food or avoid predators.</p>
As climate activists, we can't fight the climate crisis without considering the systemic impacts that environmental racism and White supremacy have on the frontline communities most affected by pollution and our warming world.
Do a Social Media Audit and Reconsider Who You Follow<p>As the movement for social and environmental justice continues, it's important to pay attention to the voices and media outlets you're consuming information from. Take a few minutes to look at your social media feeds – do you follow people of color and diverse voices? Do you follow credible news sources?</p><p>Take a look at what you've posted so far and think about <em>why </em>you posted. As allies, we can help the movement by centering our posts and online actions around supporting the activists and organizers on the ground. Think or ask about how you can best amplify these causes – for many that could mean retweeting or reposting, educating your followers, or even by directing followers to donation or petition pages.</p><p>Next, take a look at who you follow. It can be easy to get stuck in a <a href="https://www.nbcnews.com/better/lifestyle/problem-social-media-reinforcement-bubbles-what-you-can-do-about-ncna1063896" target="_blank">social media bubble</a>, where your social feed will filter out opinions you may not necessarily agree with. By continuing to audit your social media and expand your range of news sources or pages you follow to have varying opinions or backgrounds, you ensure you have a well-rounded news feed and could even hear about a news story that you may not have known about before!</p><p>For many environmental justice fights around the US and world, local news outlets and activists may be the ones covering the story first. By taking a look at our follower lists, it gives us space to recognize any information gaps! Check out the accounts of people you trust to follow useful resources and activists.</p><p>Need some recommendations to start you off? Here are some of the <a href="https://www.climaterealityproject.org/blog/top-climate-experts-follow-twitter" target="_blank">top climate scientists</a> and <a href="https://www.climaterealityproject.org/blog/young-climate-activists-follow-twitter" target="_blank">youth activists</a> we suggest you follow on social media.</p>
Challenge Yourself and Others to Continue Learning<p>It's okay not to know everything. In fact, it's completely normal.</p><p>One of the best parts of being a climate advocate is that we continue to learn and grow with the climate movement and science. To protect our air, water, and land from pollution, we have to stay up to date with the newest science and solutions – it's the same thing when advocating for social and environmental justice!</p><p>For many, this means keeping up to date on social media and in the news with what protests are happening and why, how we can support them, and what local organizations are doing to defend their communities. It also means trying to keep an ear out for the stories that major outlets aren't covering extensively.</p><p>Take the <a href="https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/atlantic-coast-pipeline-canceled-after-years-delays-accusations-environmental-injustice-n1232987" target="_blank">recent victory in the fight against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline for example</a>. Local environmental justice groups in West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina had been fighting for years against the pipeline. When it was canceled a few weeks ago, activists celebrated, but the story never seemed to get the same level of attention as the latest tweet from the White House.</p><p>Social media gives us the opportunity to learn from others with varied experiences and gain resources to information that can make us better activists.</p>
Expect to Make Mistakes and Learn to Listen<p>We will all make mistakes. It's a part of continuing to educate ourselves and growing as an ally and activist. Even the most experienced advocates have said the wrong thing or made a mistake in their time.</p><p>For many of us, especially White climate activists, these may be relatively new concepts, but we must make the fight against racism our fight. Take a look back at what you've posted before and learn from any past mistakes, using this moment to learn what went wrong and share what you learned with others. By educating yourself, you can help others who may be experiencing similar mistakes or have questions.</p><p>Additionally, the best way to learn about the impacts of systemic racism on frontline communities being impacted by police brutality or climate change is to listen. Give Black activists and people of color an opportunity to tell their stories and give yourself time to reflect on their experiences. It may (and probably will be) uncomfortable in some moments but it's necessary to make progress in a movement where we can fight together for long-awaited justice.</p>
Use Your Platform and Following to Amplify Diverse Voices<p>Whether you have a big social media following, only follow close family and friends on social media, or don't have social media accounts at all – use the platform or online environment you have to amplify the voices of Black activists and people of color.</p><p>It can be as simple as sending an email to close friends or retweeting posts from local organizers. Sharing information from those on the front lines to those who trust and follow you not only helps local activists but can help educate others!</p><p>For many, you're a trusted messenger. What does that mean? You can read more about it in one of our <a href="https://www.climaterealityproject.org/blog/why-trusted-messengers-matter" target="_blank">past blogs</a>, but here's a quick definition from <a href="https://www.bu.edu/ise/2019/04/16/trusted-messenger/" target="_blank">Boston University:</a><br>"People believe people whom they trust, and they're more likely to act based on the recommendation of that influential other person."</p><p>Your family, friends, and followers trust you – use that privilege as an opportunity to educate them and amplify the voices of those leading the social and environmental justice fight!</p>
Want to Learn More About Climate Activism and Environmental Justice?<p>Feeling inspired to join the movement for environmental and climate justice? Sign up to learn more by becoming a Climate Reality Leader.</p><p>By signing up for one of our Climate Reality Leadership Corps trainings, you'll learn about fossil fuel pollution and climate impacts on low-income families and communities of color, and how to build the broad, inclusive, and powerful coalitions necessary to fight back.</p><p>Join former Vice President Al Gore and an all-star lineup of environmental justice leaders, climate scientists, business leaders, and more to learn how to fight for a just, healthy future for all.</p>
By Eoin Higgins
Environmental groups on Friday condemned the announcement of a new rule proposed by President Donald Trump that would further weaken the Endangered Species Act by making it easier to destroy habitats vulnerable species rely on for survival.