In September of this year, the University of Washington published an eye-opening study about air quality in America. Looking at data from 2000-2010, they determined that race, far more than income, age or education, was the best indicator of exposure to harmful nitrogen dioxide, NO2, a key transportation-related pollutant. The study estimated that, if people of color breathed in the same level of NO2 as white people, about 5,000 premature deaths would have been avoided in 2010 alone. “What surprised us is that race matters more than income when it comes to who is breathing in NO2,” Julian Marshall, UW professor of civil and environmental engineering and senior author of the study, told The Guardian.“I just stared at these findings and thought: ‘What is going on?’”
For Jacqueline Patterson, director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program, such findings were hardly as startling. “These issues are not new,” she says matter-of-factly, “But thanks to social media, people are now recognizing that [issues of discrimination] aren't just one off occurrences; that there's a significant pattern of discrimination and disproportionate impact that needs to be better documented.”
“Whether it's immigration or voting rights or racism or classism or sexism, there's a dawning recognition of the way all these things are interconnected.”
When she accepted the role in 2009, Patterson expected her battle would be an uphill one. Even at the turn of the decade, the idea of Climate Justice becoming a hot topic in mainstream discussions seemed slightly far fetched. But eight years, numerous studies and a social media revolution later, Patterson says interest in her work has become so fevered that the job has become tireless, literally.
“The sheer volume has mushroomed to such an extent that if I never go to sleep I might be able to get to all the various requests,” she goodnaturedly sighs. Even this interview took weeks to come together, handled in her “spare” time driving from one appointment to another.
For Patterson, the wave of interest is ammo in a war she’s been waging her entire career. Fought on many fronts, the main thrust is this: climate change is a civil rights issue. And thanks to the actions of the Trump administration and EPA chief Scott Pruitt, it's a fight that has never been more urgent.
Below Patterson talks about how these issues can be addressed, the urgency and effectiveness of local activism and how we need to take the path of most resonance.
Before we get into the issues and fixes, can you quickly explain what your role as director of Climate Justice at the NAACP entails?
My role is twofold: one is helping NAACP state and local leadership get involved in environmental and climate justice work. Both in terms of responding to environmental justice challenges like a coal plant, incinerator or a landfill that's polluting their community, and working with them to advance opportunity -- connecting them to resources to develop a community solar project or to develop a recycling project, a green school, etc.
The second part of my job is providing the framing and analysis to address equity in the environmental and climate space. To help people in the field of environmentalism and climate charge who aren't necessarily oriented towards a civil rights and equity perspective. For that I do the speaker circuit, serving on advisory groups or boards, or participating in strategy sessions and roundtables, that sort of thing.
It seems the topic has become much hotter in academic, journalistic and activist circles recently.
There is both more research and support for that research. More philanthropy that realizes we need to look deeper at these intersections. And therefore as a result there's more research coming out.
Why do you think that is?
I think that is a product of the information age. The more that that stuff comes to light the more people are recognizing that we need to not only research, analyse and document but also have more intersectional approaches. There's a growing recognition of the interconnectedness. Whether it's immigration or voting rights or racism or classism or sexism, there's a dawning recognition of the way all these things are interconnected. So you now have funders like the Kresge Foundation which is funding inter-sectional and system changing work. 10 years ago that wouldn't have even been in their vocabulary.
What would you say are the major roadblocks to that advancement?
The more we advance, the more the fossil fuel industry and other (like-minded organizations) are ratcheting up their rhetoric and their investments in lobbying against clean air and clean energy -- contributing to groups like ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) that also have a series of intersectional issues their lobbying on, all of which impact communities of colour disproportionately. Whether it’s environmental issues or Stand Your Ground laws or pushing back on voting rights, etc., there's always a corresponding uptick in pressure and engagement from those who are opposed to what we're doing. And they are much better financed.
"Focusing on localism is a way we've been able to see concrete changes."
How do you fight that?
Make sure that we're not just relying on federal policy; we're not just relying on state policy. We're focusing a lot more on localism so the policy and practices are more relevant to people. We're not just pushing for a federal policy on solar, for example, we're pushing for a sustainable policy on community solar. So that right away people can get involved and see the benefits of this transition we're pushing for. We're trying to push for changes so these things aren't so abstract to the public; so we see more of the public involved in the transition we need to make.
It's really just about meeting people where they are: in communities. Focusing on localism is a way we've been able to see concrete changes. Not just looking into the silo of environmentalism, but also reaching out to communities to ask 'what are the things you're already concerned about?' and how can we have an intersectional way of addressing it.
Can you give an example of that?
One of the NAACP branches told me recently ‘the environmental stuff is important but the issues we really care about are economic development and criminal justice.’ And I was like, that's great because I've got this model where we can work on workforce development and job creation by training formerly incarcerated persons to do rooftop solar installations. So, really, thinking about ways to make these issues relevant for people and have co-benefits to any model we're advancing. That's the key. Not so much the path of least resistance as the path of most resonance.
What is your overall impression of the state of Climate Justice?
Unfortunately we've already put enough pollution into the air that it’s putting us on track for irreversible climate change. We need to both acknowledge that and get ready for that. We need to make sure that we're not only ready but also have policies in place to protect the most vulnerable of our communities. People in Puerto Rico, Bermuda, Texas and New Orleans can already attest that we're already experiencing climate change, and we're going to experience more. We have to prepare ourselves for that.
We also know that we have some control over how much worse it gets, and have to make the changes necessary in order to prevent it from getting worse. That's really up to the will of the people. Polling shows that people are in support of those changes, now we need to get the policies and the practices to catch up with the polls.
As a person who works both on a macro and micro level on these issues, what can the average concerned citizen do?
It depends on where that person is. There really is no catch-all answer. I would suggest that people start small: working in a community to develop a local food garden or being a part of a local food co-op, or a solar co-op. Really just looking for opportunities that would enable people to be a part of the new economy; that move us towards more sustainable practices in ways that would benefit the needs of the individual and the household but also contribute to the advancement of sustainable living.
Also making sure you're an educated voter. Part of the system change is to get the government to support these practices. So becoming educated about the positions of the people you put in office are around everything from clean air protection to clean energy. Making sure that as one goes to the voting booth, one is considering the issues beyond education and healthcare, but environmental protection as well.
Have you found protest to be an effective tool?
There's a level of awareness that happens with protest, but (for change to occur) it needs to happen in concert with some of things that I talked about: the communities that are shifting towards zero waste, towards clean energy. I think if that happens in tandem, both the practical changes on the local level and the people on the streets protesting, then we have evidence to present when we're aiming to change policy. We're able to say to policy makers, this is what we want to happen and this is where it's already been done, and this is how the communities are benefiting. We need all of those tactics at once. The awareness with the protest, the practical action that's happening on the ground then the concrete advocacy that happens with our policy makers.
"It's really just about meeting people where they are: in communities."
A good example of this is the Little Village and Pilsen neighborhoods in the south side of Chicago. Environmental and local groups came together [to close the Fisk and Crawford coal-powered power plants, Chicago's two biggest industrial sources of carbon dioxide emissions which had also been linked to a variety of illnesses in the primarily Latino neighborhoods]. The did a lot of protest, they did a lot of community education around these coal-fired power plants that were in their community and the harm that they were doing.
They got the Harvard School of Public Health to do a study which estimated the Fisk and Crawford plants were responsible for 2,800 asthma attacks, 550 emergency room visits and 41 early deaths every year.
So, once they got the public educated and got the data that showed irrefutable evidence of what was going on, they pushed for a clean air ordinance that resulted in the city council deliberating and that put pressure on the mayor to give an ultimatum to the people who operated the two coal-powered fire plants, which said either you clean them up to an acceptable level or you need to shut them down. Six months later they were closed.
Not only that, the community was able to negotiate so that none of the workers were out of a job and now the community is in active negotiations for the redevelopment of that land.
It’s the ultimate success story of what happens when you show negative impact and work together to use policy to push for change.
unFILTERED interviews is a series highlighting people making a difference in the fight for breathing easy in our modern times.