Racism, Police Violence, and the Climate Are Not Separate Issues
I find that lots of people are surprised to learn that, by overwhelming margins, the two groups of Americans who care most about climate change are Latinx Americans and African-Americans. But, of course, those communities tend to be disproportionately exposed to the effects of global warming: working jobs that keep you outdoors, or on the move, on an increasingly hot planet, and living in densely populated and polluted areas. (For many of the same reasons, these communities have proved disproportionately vulnerable to diseases such as the coronavirus.) One way of saying it is that money buys insulation, and white people, over all, have more of it.
Over the years, the environmental movement has morphed into the environmental-justice movement, and it’s been a singularly interesting and useful change. Much of the most dynamic leadership of this fight now comes from Latinx and African-American communities, and from indigenous groups; more to the point, the shift has broadened our understanding of what “environmentalism” is all about. John Muir, who has some claim to being the original modern environmentalist, once explained that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” He was talking about ecosystems, but it turns out that he was more correct than he knew: the political world is hopelessly (and hopefully) intertwined with the natural world. So, for instance, living in a community with high levels of air pollution impairs human bodies—it raises blood pressure, increases cancer. But so does living in a place with a brutal police force. As one study recently put it:
When faced with a threat, the body produces hormones and other signals that turn on the systems that are necessary for survival in the short term. These changes include accelerated heart rate and increased respiratory rate. But when the threat becomes reoccurring and persistent—as is the case with police brutality—the survival process becomes dangerous and causes rapid wear and tear on body organs and elevated allostatic load. Deterioration of organs and systems caused by increased allostatic load occurs more frequently in Black populations and can lead to conditions such as diabetes, stroke, ulcers, cognitive impairment, autoimmune disorders, accelerated aging, and death.
Or, to put it another way, having a racist and violent police force in your neighborhood is a lot like having a coal-fired power plant in your neighborhood. And having both? And maybe some smoke pouring in from a nearby wildfire? African-Americans are three times as likely to die from asthma as the rest of the population. “I Can’t Breathe” is the daily condition of too many people in this country. One way or another, there are a lot of knees on a lot of necks.
The job of people who care about the future—which is another way of saying the environmentalists—is to let everyone breathe easier. But that simply can’t happen without all kinds of change. Some of it looks like solar panels for rooftops, and some of it looks like radically reimagined police forces. All of it is hitched together.
Passing the Mic
Nina Lakhani is the environmental-justice reporter for the Guardian. Prior to that, she was a freelance reporter whose work took her to many parts of the world, including Central America, where she chronicled the sad story told in her new book, “Who Killed Berta Cáceres?” The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Why was Berta Cáceres killed—what fight was she involved in?
Berta Cáceres was murdered after leading a long campaign to stop construction of an internationally financed hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque River, in Rio Blanco, western Honduras. The Agua Zarca Dam was among scores of environmentally destructive mega projects in indigenous territories sanctioned by the post-coup government, without the legally required consultation. The Gualcarque is considered sacred by the indigenous Lenca people, who rely on the river for food, medicine, water, and spiritual nourishment. The proposed dam would have diverted the river from the Rio Blanco community, who are mostly subsistence farmers, ruining their sustainable lives and forcing them to migrate to towns and cities—or the U.S.—in order to survive. The community asked Berta, who was the coördinator of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (copinh), to help them stop construction of the dam through peaceful actions. This unleashed a wave of terror against her and the community, which included harassment, defamation, trumped-up criminal charges, and dozens of threats. But they couldn’t silence her, so they killed her, on March 2, 2016.
Somebody pulled the trigger—but who was behind that person?
Berta was hated by the powerful network of political, economic, religious, and military élites that controls Honduras. We know that a hit squad, a group of poor young men, were paid to murder Berta: a gunman shot her dead in her bedroom, close to midnight; another shot Gustavo Castro, a Mexican environmentalist and dear friend of Berta’s, who was staying at her house. He was injured, but survived by playing dead. Also present was the getaway-car driver and a former special-forces sergeant, who was coördinating the mission at the house. The trial, which took place in late 2018, convicted those four and three others, whom I’d describe as middlemen. Don’t get me wrong—they played important roles. But those who paid for and ordered the murder have not been prosecuted, even though the court ruled that Berta was killed because her actions were delaying the dam construction and costing the Honduran company building the dam, desa, money. David Castillo, the former executive president of the company, and a U.S.-trained former intelligence officer, is the only person so far accused of masterminding the crime. He’s been in prison, awaiting trial, for twenty-seven months. But the evidence strongly suggests that other company executives, who are members of one of the country’s most powerful clans, should be investigated—yet none have even been formally questioned. [desa has denied that Castillo or anyone else at the company was involved in the crime.] The possible role played by any state officials—police, military, judges, prosecutors, and politicians—before, during, and after the murder has never been investigated.
What can we say about the role indigenous communities play in protecting the environment?
Indigenous people across the world mobilize against damaging environmental activities to protect their sacred lands, water, and traditional way of life, and they are involved in forty-one percent of documented environmental conflicts, according to a new study analyzing nearly three thousand community movements. Across the board, environmental defenders face high rates of criminalization, physical violence, and assassination, but the risk is significantly higher when indigenous people are involved. In my experience reporting from across Mexico and Central America, environmentally destructive projects—such as mining, dams, logging, and tourism resorts—are imposed on indigenous communities without any consultation or compensation, and when they resist investors and politicians try to discredit them as anti-development and anti-green energy. This simply isn’t true. Imposing these environmentally destructive projects, including clean-energy projects, will destroy indigenous communities who could teach us so much about sustainability.
Organized labor is often lumped in with progressive groups as a champion of environmental progress, and, indeed, many unions are engaged in the fight for a Green New Deal. But, as the climate journalist Steve Horn reminds us, in an incisive piece of reporting, other unions have continued to fight for pipelines and other big fossil-fuel initiatives. Some of them are joining with the former Obama Administration Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz in a coalition to back “clean coal,” natural gas, and other fossil-fuel projects. It will be fateful to see which vision carries the day, as the Democrats choose an energy future: the other pole is represented here, by Varshini Prakash, whom Senator Bernie Sanders has named to the joint task force on climate that he formed with Joe Biden. (The chairs are Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the former Secretary of State John Kerry.)
A new study finds that four more years of Donald Trump could delay global-emissions cuts by a decade, since it will not just depress action here but give other leaders around the world a good excuse for inaction.
Another new study—this one headed by the senators Sheldon Whitehouse, of Rhode Island, Debbie Stabenow, of Michigan, and Chuck Schumer, of New York—details the decades-long effort to stage a right-wing “capture” of the American judiciary, helping to insure a rising number of court decisions protecting polluters.
The number of birds in North America has fallen by a third since 1970, and climate change now seems to be making long-distance migration—always something of a miracle—much more difficult.
A lot of oil companies are making promises to go “net zero” in emissions by 2050, and this trend has come in for questions and critiques from environmental groups. That’s not a problem for ExxonMobil, though—always the hold-my-beer champion of corporate irresponsibility. At last week’s shareholder meeting, Darren Woods, the chairman and chief executive, said that there would be no such targets for the company. He also told shareholders that there are no plans to invest in renewable energy, because the company has no “unique advantage” in the field. If nothing else, ExxonMobil’s intransigence makes embarrassingly clear the failure of engagement strategies pursued by those who have chosen to work with the company rather than to divest their shares, a group that includes New York State (under the comptroller, Tom DiNapoli) and the Church of England.
On the world’s short list of truly bad ideas: flying cars, which are apparently now under development at twenty different companies, and which, as Kevin DeGood, of the Center for American Progress, says, would “represent the technological apotheosis of sprawl and an attempt to eradicate distance as a fact of life for elites who are wealthy enough to routinely let slip the bonds of gravity.”
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against several big oil companies, sending lawsuits seeking to hold them responsible for the effects of climate change back to California state courts. The companies had argued that damage from global warming was “speculative,” and that, in any event, Congress had urged them to produce more hydrocarbons.
The United States consumed more energy from renewables than from coal last year—the first time this has happened since the nineteenth century. Meanwhile, those who invested in fossil-fuel stocks have seen their value crater by more than forty per cent in the first four months of this year, while investments in renewable energy grew more than two per cent.
The former Times science reporter Andrew Revkin has been hosting what he calls “Sustain What?” Webcasts, with Columbia University’s Earth Institute, to foster “online conversations and communities shaping solution-oriented policy and personal paths amid wickedly intertwined challenges,” such as covid-19 and climate change. Late last month, he invited the University of Alabama biologist Gui Becker, whom you can hear singing his own composition, “Cataclysmic Chaos,” at 1:17:45 of this YouTube video.
This article originally appeared in The New Yorker on June 4, 2020