Why the Voting Rights Act Matters for Environmentalists
Many people who care about climate change understand the corrupting influence of big money in politics and rightfully sound the alarm when elected officials who are supposed to represent their constituents instead protect corporate profits. This is especially true when it comes to big political spenders and climate polluters like the Koch Brothers and the fossil fuel companies like Shell.
The Greenpeace toxic patrol, lead by Damu Smith, protests against the toxics industry with a banner reading: �Environmental Justice Now� which is displayed along with other banners as the activists protest through the street. Photo credit: Robert Visser / Greenpeace
However, voter suppression and disenfranchisement are not as commonly talked about in the environmental community. This despite the fact that denying the right to vote strips people of access to a cornerstone of our democracy and a way to have their interests represented in decisions that impact them—including issues of climate and environmental health.
It’s high time we make those connections.
Climate Justice and Voting Rights
Jacqueline Patterson, environmental and climate justice director at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), explains the intersectionality of race, voting rights, climate justice and health in a fantastic blog here.
In her piece, Patterson calls out the fact that “African American children [are] four times as likely as White American children to die from asthma attacks tied to poor air quality for coal fired plants and other facilities and with the rampant loss of life we are seeing from extreme weather events in our communities and worldwide driven by climate change, which largely results from fossil fuel based energy production.”
Marginalized communities—often communities of color that have been historically disenfranchised—disproportionately suffer environmental harms and often have the fewest resources available to counteract those harms. When we recognize that a healthy environment and a healthy democracy go hand in hand, it’s clear that ensuring the right to vote is critical.
As Patterson puts it:
“… [W]ith entities that have driven the agenda towards stripping voting rights planning on putting $889 million into the coming elections, we must all lean in together on campaign finance reform and voting rights so that communities (and all of us) feel that our votes and our advocacy on issues like net metering, energy efficiency, renewable portfolio standards and indeed relatedly, income inequality and community policing, will actually add value and have a transformational impact.”
Aside from being just plain wrong, disenfranchising impacted communities gives corporations and oligarchs even more power to recklessly plunder the world around us. Equality and justice are part of our shared vision for the future. We must stand with our allies to move that vision forward.
What Happened to the Voting Rights Act?
Fifty years ago, the Civil Rights Movement paved the way for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Though the fight for justice continues to this day, this was a monumental victory for a movement that was struggling for freedom and self-determination, as it outlawed many of the tools used by racist state and local governments to deny people of color and language minority groups the ability to exercise their right to vote.
However, in June 2013—after 48 years and more than 700 instances of discriminatory impacts prevented by the law between 1982 and 2006 alone—the Supreme Court’s conservative majority struck down key pieces of the Voting Rights Act in a case called Shelby County v. Holder. This decision made it far easier for states to pass discriminatory voting measures and more difficult for people of color and language minority groups to register, vote and have their votes counted equally.
This was a huge blow. In the words of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, “In this 50th anniversary year of the Voting Rights Act, voters are more vulnerable to discrimination than at any time since the law was first passed in 1965.”
Time for Action
In 2015, the right to vote and to have votes counted fairly is still at stake. Though voting has always been one of many ways of building and exercising power and holding elected officials accountable to the communities they are supposed to represent, we are all being called upon (again) to support this most basic right.
Civil rights organizations are leading the charge for a gold standard when it comes to voting rights in the U.S. and it’s up to everyone—members of labor unions, environmental organizations and many others—to stand by these leaders in calling for the U.S. to live up to its promise of democracy for all Americans.
Join the call. Tell your member of Congress that it’s time to restore the Voting Rights Act.
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"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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