Suffering first: what it looks like in the US

Jacqueline Patterson is the director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program.  She submitted the following comments to the EPA, and has shared them with PA IPL in anticipation of Climate Justice: Faith in Action, PA IPL’s 2014 annual conference, and which she will be a workshop leader and member of the keynote panel.   Download the NAACP Climate Justice Toolkit here. JP at Bridgeport Plant

In February 2011, my father began to complain of a cough, which worsened over 6 months until he was homebound and tethered to an oxygen machine.  He was severely winded just from walking from the living room to the kitchen to get a glass of water.

Dad’s diagnosis was pulmonary fibrosis.  My father never smoked a day in his life.  His doctor stated that the scar tissue in his lungs was likely due to past exposure to environmental toxins from his work place or otherwise.  Dad spent 40 years residing within 10 miles of the Fisk and Crawford Coal Plants in Chicago. We laid my father to rest on September 12th of 2011. How many more people must we bury before we are granted equal protection under the law?

Approximately 68% of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal plant.  The impact is clear in the rates of respiratory illnesses in African Americans. Even though we have lower rates of smoking, we are more likely to die of lung disease. Nationwide, African American children are twice as likely to die of asthma and 3 times more likely to be admitted to the hospital for an asthma attack.  We also see high asthma rates within Latino American and Native American populations, who are also disproportionately exposed to coal pollution.  Carbon may not directly cause these health conditions, but it creates what scientists call “domes” that trap, concentrate, and intensify the other toxins we breathe.   With the mercury, arsenic, lead, dioxins and other pollutants that come from coal plants in communities nationwide, these “domes” are in effect creating lethal gas chambers for communities that are host to these facilities.  At the same time, carbon dioxide is the #1 driver of climate change and these plants are the leading source of carbon dioxide.

Again, climate change affects us all, but its effects are felt hardest by communities and people who are politically, economically, physically, and socially vulnerable. When I did hurricane relief after Katrina and Rita, the throngs of folks who walked through the doors of the disaster recovery center were largely African American and low income.

  • I met scores of people with hearing impairments with no qualified interpreter to help them navigate the system.
  • I encountered people with HIV and AIDS who went weeks without access to their life-preserving antiretroviral drugs.
  • I met women who encountered sexual assault in the aftermath of the disaster.
  • I met hundreds of people who had to completely start over after only escaping with their lives.

And scientists say that Katrina, Rita, Sandy, the Colorado floods and more, are only the tip of the iceberg!

Growing up on the Southside of Chicago, I lived in a “food desert”, like so many communities of color and low income communities.  This means that we had better access to Doritos or Cheetos than broccoli or strawberries.  We already see how this plays out for communities who are suffering from heightened rates of obesity, as well hunger, and all of the health conditions that result from poor diet, such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, etc.  Affordable access to nutritious foods will only lessen as climate change affects crops. In recent years we’ve seen farmers in Illinois, Iowa, Mississippi, and beyond lose crops both to flood and drought.  Again, scientists say we’ve only just begun to see these impacts.

Through my work with the NAACP, I’ve visited with coastal communities from Florida to Louisiana, to North Carolina to New York, some of whom are already experiencing coastal erosion and several of whom are facing displacement in the next 20 years, due to sea level rise and storm surge.  The cost of inaction on carbon pollution is the health, livelihood, culture, economic, and social wellbeing of communities worldwide, with vulnerable communities being hit first and worst.  Therefore, we need strong carbon pollution standards to slow the path to devastation on which we are recklessly traveling. Strong means that we aren’t steering the ship from one disaster to another, by myopically shifting to false solutions.

  • Even if costly “clean coal” technologies were proven to effectively capture carbon, that wouldn’t help the 76,000 coal miners who have died of black lung disease since 1968, or the folks who are drinking lead and selenium laced water contaminated by coal ash ponds.
  • Shifting to fracking continues to emit greenhouse gases through venting and flaring, has been known to contaminate aquifers with its mystery cocktail of toxins, and may even contribute to the increase in seismic activity that is causing earthquakes from Nebraska to Ohio and beyond.
  • The folks near the Fukushima Daiichi plant would certainly have a cautionary tale about increasing our reliance on nuclear energy, particularly given that a number of America’s nuclear reactors are built on earthquake fault lines already being disrupted by fracking.

We must establish aggressive targets for pollution reduction and significantly increase our focus and action on energy efficiency and clean energy.  The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has found that we have vast amounts of solar, wind and geothermal potential, some of which is already being successfully harnessed, creating new jobs.  That’s where we need to focus investments as we shift from harmful coal based energy production processes.

Finally we must ensure that each states’ development of implementation plans is done inclusively so that equity based input is heeded and all stakeholders are heard, particularly communities that are most impacted by coal pollution directly as well indirectly through climate change.  Decades of pollution from coal plants have led us to where we are now, already experiencing catastrophic climate change.   We must get this situation under control for all of our sakes. Thank you.

1. Mark your calendar and register for Climate Justice: Faith in Action, PA IPL’s 2014 annual conference.
2. Download the NAACP Climate Justice Toolkit here.
3. Sign up for affordable clean electricity, that won’t cause lung disease in poor communities in the United States.