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Climate Justice: A Fight for Equal Opportunity

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Fifty years ago, Americans facing racial injustice marched the 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to protest discriminatory voting laws. It was a watershed moment in the Civil Rights Movement, influencing the passage of the Voting Rights Act, and forever redefining and improving our cherished values of freedom and fairness. February marks Black History Month—a time to reflect on past injustice, and refocus efforts on injustices that persist.

Fighting for environmental justice, and climate justice, echoes the spirit of America's great civil rights leaders; it's a spirit fueled by our moral obligation to leave our children a world safer and rich with opportunity.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

Today, too often, low-income neighborhoods and communities of color are disproportionately burdened by pollution and health risks. Those same communities are excessively vulnerable to the devastating floods, fires, storms and heatwaves supercharged by climate change. To make matters worse, the carbon pollution fueling climate change comes packaged with other dangerous pollutants that cause chronic disease and chase away local businesses and jobs. Power plants, our biggest source of carbon pollution, are often located in these areas, casting their shadow over communities already vulnerable to environmental health hazards.

Pollution and climate impacts are a barrier to economic opportunity, blocking the path to middle-class security. President Obama calls ensuring America's promise of opportunity for all a defining challenge of our time; however, it's impossible to climb any ladder of opportunity without clean air to breathe, clean water to drink and healthy land to live on.

That's why at the core of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) mission is the unwavering pursuit of environmental justice. The Hip Hop Caucus joined the fight for Environmental Justice after Hurricane Katrina, a disaster that underscored communities facing risks from climate impacts: low-income families and people of color.

With President Obama's leadership, EPA is ramping up efforts to cut air and water pollution, expanding public outreach, enforcing laws to defend public health and holding polluters accountable. And through President Obama's Climate Action Plan, EPA is taking historic action to fight the economic and public health risks of a changing climate by cutting carbon pollution from power plants.

Organizations like the Hip Hop Caucus are critical to climate progress by ensuring at-risk communities are a part of the conversation—and part of the solution. To balance the ledger of environmental disenfranchisement, we must confront today's risks with a focus on communities that need it the most.

We're moved by the words of Jibreel Khazan spoken in Greensboro, NC on the 55th anniversary of the Greensboro Four sitting down at the lunch counter inside the Woolworth store on Feb. 1, 1960:

“Climate change is young people's 'lunch counter moment' for the 21st century. When my three classmates and I sat down at that lunch counter to end segregation we did not know what the outcome would be. We simply knew that we had to act. We had to take bold action for necessary change to come about. It is in the tradition of civil and human rights struggle that young people today are calling for action on climate change. It is the biggest threat to justice and opportunity our planet has ever seen."

Fighting for environmental justice, and climate justice, echoes the spirit of America's great civil rights leaders; it's a spirit fueled by our moral obligation to leave our children a world safer and rich with opportunity. History proves even the most wrenching strains on justice can be unwound, with a committed, diverse and vocal coalition of people calling for change. That's why EPA, the Hip Hop Caucus and organizations around the country are fighting for climate justice—so we can further fairness and opportunity for all.

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"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.

The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.

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"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."

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Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.

If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.

"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."

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