Climate Justice and People of Color

Robert D. Bullard

The Hague, Netherlands, November 21, 2000 - Numerous studies document that the poor and people of color in the United States and around the world have borne greater health and environmental risks than the society at large when it comes to workplace hazards, pollution from chemical plants, municipal landfills, incinerators, abandoned toxic waste dumps, lead smelters, and emissions from clogged freeways. The environmental and economic justice movement was born in response to these injustices and disparities. The movement's diverse allies have much to offer policymakers in resolving many of the problems that have resulted from industrial pollution and human settlement patterns.

Finding solutions to global climate change is one of the areas that desperately need the input from those populations most likely to be negatively affected, poor people in the developing countries of the South and people of color and the poor in the North. Global climate change looms as a major environmental justice issue of the 21st century.


The official global climate change conference was held at the Netherlands Congress Center, The Hague.


"Work it Out!" was the theme of The Sixth Conference of the Parties
to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change or COP6.

Meetings in The Hague

Thousands of grassroots organizers, church leaders, students, and academics traveled to The Hague in November to press their concern for impacts climate change. Various briefings and alternative summits were held in addition to the formal climate negotiations occurring under the 6th Conference of Parties (COP6). For example, the Oakland, California-based Redefining Progress group held an Environmental Justice and Climate Change Forum on Friday, November 17. The forum presenters addressed a range of topics: Joanne Kliejunas (Redefining Progress), "An overview of Climate Change," Robert D. Bullard (Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University and Interim Black Environmental and Economic Justice Coordinating Committee), "Why Global Climate Change is an Environmental Justice Issue," Rueben Solis (Southwest Workers Union, Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice), and Shelly Means (Washington Association of Churches and Community Coalition for Environmental Justice-Seattle), "Indigenous Peoples and Climate Change: Environmental Advocates in Negotiations."


Professor Ruud Lubbers, the International President of WWF,
presents Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok with eleven million messages against global warming.

Grassroots groups around the world are fighting against unjust, unfair, and unethical policies and practices that place polluting facilities in their back yards and front yards. They are fighting life and death struggles against globalization of polluting industries that would turn their neighborhoods, communities, and homelands into toxic wastelands. Several hundred activists participated in the two-day (November 19-20) Climate Justice Summit held at the Concordia Theatre in The Hague.

The Climate Justice Summit served as the "official" alternative meeting to the official UN process which was mired in "smoke and mirror" technical discussions and sessions dominated by "emission brokers" and corporate lobbyists. The Climate Justice Summit brought together grassroots activists, largely people of color, from all over the world to raise the critical issues that are not being addressed by the world's governments.


Grassroots groups planned the Climate Justice Summit as the "peoples'" summit.


"No matter how you cut or slice it, global climate change is a major environmental and economic justice issue," is the message relayed by academics, activists, economists, and policy analysts who participated in the Environmental Justice and Climate Change Forum.

Grassroots leaders from Atlanta to Alaska and from Norco to Nigeria demanded a seat at the table to hammer out real solution rather than a "band aid" approach to this real crisis. It should be no surprise to anyone that grassroots groups from South Africa, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Columbia, Mexico, California, Louisiana, and Texas want basically the same thing: namely environmental and economic justice. These committed leaders called for climate justice that would embrace clean production, sustainable development, and fair, just, and equitable plans that would rein in global climate change.


Sara James, an indigenous women of Gwich'in descent, explain how her homeland,
located in Artic Village, Alaska, is under siege from oil and gas development.

The environmental and health effects of global climate change are real. Mounting scientific evidence documents that human activities are altering the chemical composition of the atmosphere through the buildup of greenhouse gases-primarily carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. Changing climates are expected to raise sea levels, alter precipitation and other weather conditions, threaten human health, and harm fish and many types of ecosystems. The adverse impacts fall heaviest on the poor. This deadly pattern occurs disproportionately among people of color in the U.S. who are concentrated in urban centers in the Southern United States, coastal regions, and areas with substandard air quality.

Not surprising, resistance to reigning in climate-altering activities through the Kyoto Protocol has come largely from the fossil fuel lobby, companies that either extract, process and sell fossil fuels, generate electricity using coal, oil or gas, and automobile makers. Communities suffer from environmental and health assaults from being fence line with polluting industries. Giant oil companies are major contributors to both local pollution and global warming.


Oilwatch reports that four giant oil companies alone , Shell, Exxon-Mobil, BP-Amaco, and Chevron-Texaco,
account for 10 percent of all carbon emissions.


Roberto Afanador Cobaria relays his U'Wa indigenous peoples' struggle against
Occidental Petroleum Company in Columbia, South America.

The toxic dumping pattern is duplicated in the central city ghettos, barrio, rural "poverty pockets," Native American reservations, on U.S.-Mexico border, and in developing nations of the South. People and communities who are victimized by industrial pollution do not have to wait for their governments or private industry to tell them the costs and benefits of pollution. Many environmental justice activists know that their communities are paying the ultimate price with their health. Most community leaders would also agree that their health is not for sale.


Environmental Justice leaders take time to pose at summit. Left to right. Dr. Beverly Wright (Xavier University of Louisiana),
Margie Richard (Nocro, Louisiana), Dr. Owens Wiwa (Ogoni, Nigeria, and executive director of AFRIDA),
Juanita Stewart (Alsen, Louisiana), and Dr. Robert D. Bullard (Clark Atlanta University).

A Busy Coal Lobby

This past July, a coal lobby group, Center for Energy and Economic Development (CEED), funded a $40,000 study blasting the Kyoto Protocol for its harmful impact it would have on blacks and Hispanics. The report entitled, Refusing to Repeat Past Mistakes: How the Kyoto Climate Change Protocol Would Disproportionately Threaten the Economic Well-Being of Blacks and Hispanics in the United States, was trotted out by several minority business and labor organizations (i.e., A. Phillip Randolph Institute, Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, The National Black Chamber of Commerce, The National Institute for Latino Development, and the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, none of which have an environmental or environmental justice track record. It is also telling that not a single one of the sponsoring minority organizations is listed in the People of Color Environmental Groups Directory 2000, a virtual "who's who" among groups in the United States, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico.

The report (posted on CEED's website on http://www.ceednet.org/newsletter/06_21_00b.htm) somehow glossed over the fact that its sponsor, CEED, is a U.S. coal and rail lobby formed in 1992 with the expressed purpose of "protecting the viability of coal-based electricity." On its website, CEED states that it is "opposed to the proposed U.N. Global Treaty (the Kyoto Protocol)."

Environmental justice advocates can see through the bogus argument and sham report offered by CEED and other fossil fuel lobbyists. Few of these organizations have been on the front line fighting for environmental and economic justice, equal protection and enforcement of civil rights, or universal health care. People of color are disproportionately represented among the 40-50 million uninsured Americans. They are also more likely to live in poverty. In 1998, 12.7 percent of the United States population lived below the poverty line. Despite record employment figures over the past decade, the poverty rate for African Americans changed from 30.8 percent in 1989 to 26.1 percent in 1998, nearly three times the rate of poverty for white Americans (10.5 percent). The poverty rate among Hispanics was 27.1 percent in 1997.


Some communities refuse to trade their health for the promise of jobs, Carson, California.

Energy Consumption

Energy consumption is greatly affected by population and economic growth. The single most important factor in increased energy demand is increased population, middle-and upper-income suburban neighborhood development trends of fewer people per household, and large homes on large lots that are spread out in isolated subdivisions. This development pattern fuels an even higher growth in total electrical and petroleum demand.

The average residential electricity consumption in the United States increased by 22 percent between 1972 and 1993. Power plants are responsible for generating 40 percent of carbon dioxide (CO2), 70 percent of sulfur dioxide (SO2), 30 percent of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and 40 percent of fine particulate matter (PM) that is released into the air each year. Dirty power plants add to a growing environmental problem and respiratory health threat.

Contribution of U.S. Transportation

Transportation sources account for 80 percent of carbon monoxide (CO), 45 percent of NOx, 36 percent of hydrocarbons (HC), 32 percent of CO2, 19 percent of PM, and 5 percent of SO2 emissions, nationally. Motor vehicles emit one-third of the United States' carbon dioxide, one quarter of all chlorofluorocarbons, 40 percent of nitrogen oxides, and most of the carbon monoxide. The American Public Transit Association reports that a five-mile commute in a car annually releases 110 pounds of carbon monoxide pollution into the air. The same commute on a train releases only 2/4 ounces of the same pollution per passenger.


A big part of the problem is the lifestyles of those of us who demand cars and more cars.

Heavy dependence on automobiles adds to the traffic and air pollution problems, threatens public health, and wastes money and energy. American drivers waste $72 billion a year due to traffic jams. Over 79.6 percent of commuters drive alone to work. Americans spend over 2 billion hours a year in their cars. Over 115 million Americans commute by car daily. Every 1 percent increase in highway capacity generates a 0.9 percent increase in traffic within five years.

Public transit in many American cities is stigmatized as "poor people" transportation or "transportation for minorities." Nationally, only about 5.3 percent of all Americans use public transit to get to work. People of color riders (Blacks, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans) account for nearly 60 percent of all transit passengers. In areas with populations from one million and below, more than half of all transit passengers have incomes of less than $15,000 per year. Public transit has received roughly $50 billion since the creation of the Urban Mass Transit Administration over thirty years ago. Roadway projects have received over $205 Billion since 1956. Public transit ridership in 1999 was 4.5 percent higher than in the previous year. Urban air quality is of major concern to people of color since they are disproportionately concentrated in U.S. cities that have failed to meet federal air standards.

The Price of Air Pollution

According to National Argonne Laboratory researchers, 57 percent of whites, 65 percent of African Americans, and 80 percent of Hispanics live in 437 counties with substandard air quality. Ground level ozone is the primary ingredient of smog. Children are at special risk from the ozone. Air pollution from vehicle emissions causes significant amounts of illness, hospitalization and premature death. Although it is difficult to put a single price tag on this cost, estimates range from $10 billion to $200 billion a year. Air pollution exacerbates asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Asthma accounts for 10 million missed school days, 1.2 million emergency room visits, 15 million outpatient visits, and 500,000 hospitalizations each year. Inner city children have the highest rates for asthma prevalence, hospitalization, and mortality.


Children have a right to "breathe and not wheeze," Norco, Louisiana.

The annual age-adjusted death rate from asthma increased by 40 percent between 1982 and 1991, from 1.34 to 1.88 per100,000 population. Asthma is the most common chronic disease of childhood and the fourth leading cause of disability among children less than 18 years old in the United States. The hospitalization rate for African Americans is 3 to 4 times the rate for whites. As of 1998, African Americans are almost three times more likely than whites to die from asthma.

In the end, the impetus for climate justice will not likely come from within government. It a sure bet not to come from the polluting industry. Climate justice will likely take root from meetings like the Climate Justice Summit where those most affected share their common experiences and decide to take collective action. Waiting for governments to respond may be too deadly for communities of color and the planet.