CLIMATE JUSTICE: The Minnesota Model for Building a Better Future for Us All.
WHAT THE HMONG FARMERS CAN TEACH US ABOUT CLIMATE RESILIENCE
By Bailey Webster
The Hmong American Farmers Association in Minneapolis was founded in 2011 by a family of farmers, and today is led by sister and brother Pakou Hang (executive director) and Janssen Hang (farm manager). For those unfamiliar with the Hmong people, they originated in China and migrated to Laos. Hmong men and boys were contracted by the CIA in the 1960s during the Vietnam War to guard the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. It was called the Secret War because the United States wasn't supposed to be performing any political activity in Laos at that time. After the war in Vietnam ended, there was a coup in Laos and communists came to power. Because the Hmong had been working with the US, the communists put them into re-education camps. Many tried to flee across the Mekong River into Thailand. Many died.
The Hmong who managed to make it to Thailand were put into refugee camps and later resettled all over the world. Many of them came to the United States, settling in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and California. The Twin Cities has the highest concentration of Hmong people in the United States and Hmong farmers make up a large part of the vegetable-farming sector in the region.
The mission of the Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA) is to advance the prosperity of Hmong farmers through cooperative endeavors, capacity building, and advocacy. My boss, Pakou Hang, has a background in political leadership and is passionate about community organizing. As the food hub director at HAFA, I oversee the program running a 400-member collective that sells wholesale to the Twin Cities markets.
Point of clarification and some background on me: I'm white. I'm not Hmong. It's really important for me to say that I am not speaking for Hmong farmers. I'm speaking from my own experience. I call myself very fortunate to work in the Hmong community and to learn from its farmers as I focus on supporting Hmong leadership and the leadership of people of color. I've been on a long journey to understand my privilege and place in a system of white supremacy. I will always be on this journey; I make mistakes all the time and I really strive to bring a spirit of humility and curiosity to my work.
I want to talk a bit about agricultures contribution to climate change. Agriculture contributes about 13 percent of global carbon emissions in the world--that's second only to the energy sector. So we're a huge contributor to climate change, with plant debris and decomposing biological activity releasing carbon into the atmosphere. The more open ground there is, the more carbon that's going into the atmosphere. As well, tractors release carbon into the atmosphere. Conventional fertilizers are very energy intensive to produce and release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It's well known that animals contribute a huge amount of methane into the atmosphere, and rice also produces methane. So, there are all these ways that conventional agriculture contributes to climate change. It's a very extractive system and requires a lot of fossil fuel to keep it going.
The real travesty of our agricultural system is that it has the potential to be carbon neutral or even carbon negative. Because the super power of agriculture is that plants pull carbon out of the atmosphere and sequester it into the soil. If you leave plants on a landscape and you're not disturbing them all the time, they're actually taking more carbon out of the atmosphere than they're releasing. So pursuing animal-based agriculture that's grass-based rather than feedlot-based is something that we should be looking at as a way to mitigate climate change.
There's an idea I like to share that basically says every system is perfectly designed to get the result it gets. Agriculture has been designed to be the way it is. We have this myth in our society that agriculture broke in the 1950s with industrialization, and tractors, and chemical agriculture. It's really not true. It's not broken--we designed it this way. American agriculture was built on the backs of slave labor. It was built on land stolen from Indigenous people. Really, in moving into a conventional system of agriculture that we have now, we've traded huge human cost for a huge environmental cost.
I believe the same forces that created the climate crisis also created the system of racial and gender oppression we have right now It's really not an accident that most of the food we eat is harvested by people of color and people from marginalized communities, and that most of the farmland in the United States is held by white farmers. A full 96 percent of the land in this country is owned by white people; only one percent is owned by black Americans even though black people founded our agricultural system.
Why is there not more representation? Everybody eats, and lots of other cultures have agrarian backgrounds. In fact, all cultures are agrarian if you go back far enough.
Going back to my work with the Hmong farmers at HAFA, what's really important to know is that these farmers are experiencing climate change right now in ways that most of us are not really aware of. When you're out on the landscape--when your livelihood depends on getting rain at the right time, not getting too much rain, getting the right weather, and dealing with pests, the reality of climate change is clear. It's disruptive. Last season was incredibly difficult for HAFA farmers because we had a long period of really dry and really hot weather. Our farmers come from a subsistence agriculture background, so they're not using a lot of irrigation methods. They're putting the crops in the ground and hoping they get enough water. That's really challenging right now.
In Laos, the Hmong were subsistence farmers who used the slash-and-burn method of agriculture. That's basically going into an area, cutting all the trees, burning them, and then growing on that land until it's no longer fertile, after which you move to a new piece of land. This works fine in an area that's not very population dense. Basically, it's not sustainable anymore because we have so many humans on the planet.
When the Hmong got to Minnesota, many of them couldn't read or write. They didn't speak English. They had limited skills that could be applied to jobs here, so they took to farming as a way to support their families. They slowly got into the farmers' markets. Anybody who's been to a farmers' market in Minneapolis knows that about half of the farmers there are Hmong. They've been really successful there, but as I've said, they face some challenges too.
The birth of HAFA came about after a finance and opportunity conference that Hmong farmers were invited to in 2011. After the conference these farmers met together to debrief. One woman stood up and basically said: we need to stop waiting for someone to save us. We can save ourselves. Pakou Hang was there in conjunction with the Bush Fellowship to interview Hmong farmers and understand what challenges they were facing. Five days later she filed for 501(c)(3) status, and the rest is history. Today we're a robust organization with nineteen families that farm on our land. We do $400,000 a year in sales through our food hub, and we have a really strong training program.
Since Hmong farmers came to the United States, they've learned more sustainable methods of agriculture and tend to stay on the land longer. They've slowly been incorporating cover crops, integrated pest management practices, and crop rotations--all the things that contribute to a more resilient and robust agricultural system.
Long-term land tenure really means more sustainable practices. Before HAFA was founded, the Hmong farmers we worked with were leasing land year to year from mostly white farmers. This would be a handshake lease because they didn't know English. It was on the landowner's honor, and Hmong farmers didn't know from year to year if they would still be able to farm there. (I heard from a farmer back in March who was still wondering if he was going to have access to his parcel off of the HAFA farm.) This means you're not going to invest in fruit trees, or asparagus, or strawberries, or things where the soil doesn't need to be disturbed every year because it's a big upfront investment and you need to be on the land for multiple seasons to recoup that investment. HAFA gives ten-year land leases. This is really essential. We have farmers planting raspberries, fruit trees, and asparagus. I think we have 6,000 crowns of asparagus going in this year, which is really exciting.
I want to stress how important it is to prioritize local food supplies and also to see the connection between climate justice and social justice. I recently read a statistic that by 2050, California's yield in some crops could be reduced by 40 percent because of climate change. This is going to be hugely impactful for our country, and food-insecure communities are going to be hit first and hardest. So, where I've come to in my work is an understanding that climate justice and social justice are really two sides of the same coin. You can't address one without addressing the other.
Albert Einstein had a quote: "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." I think a lot of the players at the agricultural table are similar to the ones who were there when we created this system. We need more marginalized voices at the table. That's part of why I'm so proud to work for HAFA, to put my energy behind Pakou, my boss, and my Hmong co-workers. I think that, especially for white people, figuring out how we can put our egos aside and support other types of leadership that have more to offer in terms of understanding what true resilience looks like is really important.
We also need more farmers and owners on the landscape if we're going to have a sustainable agricultural system. You can't have just one farmer for 20,000 acres and think that it's going to be sustainable. One of the big challenges here is that rural America is very challenging to people of color, minorities, even women. (I'm farming forty minutes outside of the city and I get flak all the time.) So, this needs to be addressed. We need to make rural America safer for people of color. I don't know how to do that, but it's important.
So, what can you do to help? First of all, invest in female leadership and leadership by people of color. Find organizations that are led by somebody who's different from you, who brings a different perspective to the table. Fund them. Volunteer for them. Volunteer to do some of the grunt work. If you're going into an organization wanting to help and you're not willing to be the person who makes the coffee and does the dishes, you want to look at that. There's room for everybody to bring their gifts and talents, but I think bringing a sense of humility and a true desire to help people means freeing people up to do what they do really well.
Something else you can do: go to farmers' markets. My main piece of advice about this is to go when it's raining. This is important because farmers are showing up regardless of the weather, and they're taking half to three quarters of their produce home on rainy days. They usually have tents; there's really no excuse for us to not go and purchase fruits and vegetables from local farmers.
Something else you can do is join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. At HAFA, we run a Veggie Rx initiative as part of our CSA program, where we're partnering with hospitals. Participating doctors will identify patients who are food insecure or who have specific health conditions like chronic diabetes, and sign them up for this program. These patients receive a totally subsidized box of produce every week that they can bring home and cook for their families. Many of the families that we serve in this way are Southeast Asians, and they know how to cook the vegetables our farmers are growing.
The last point I want to make is that Hmong farmers have a lot to teach us about resilience. They've been through so much going from Laos to Thailand and being in refugee camps. Coming to this country without knowledge of the language, they've really built amazing lives for themselves. Likewise, we should also listen to Hmong kids who grew up farming with their parents, and who might not be interested in going into agriculture themselves but have a lot to say about climate resilience.
BAILEY WEBSTER has a BS in horticultural science from the University of Minnesota and has been working in sustainable agriculture on small-scale family farms for the past twelve years. She's had numerous internships on both for-profit and nonprofit farms, and she currently owns a small farm in Prescott, Wisconsin, where she grows garlic commercially. Before joining HAFA as the food hub director, she worked for the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES).
DO WE REALLY NEED A NEW GREEN DEAL?
By Ben Passer
In my role as director of energy access and equity for Fresh Energy--a St. Paul, Minnesota, energy policy nonprofit working to speed the transition to a clean energy economy--the question I've been hearing a lot lately is: Do we really need a Green New Deal?
The specifics, of course, are still in the works, but in general the Green New Deal aims for a 100-percent clean-energy standard; affordable, quality healthcare; clean air and water; housing; jobs; and so on. The Sierra Club describes it as a big, bold transformation of the economy to tackle the twin crises of inequality and climate change. The Sunrise Movement describes it as a 100-percent clean-energy standard by the year 2030, investment in communities on the frontlines of poverty and pollution, and the guarantee of a quality job.
Since the Green New Deal was introduced at the federal level, through resolutions by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) on March 25, 2019, we've seen multiple state-based iterations, including right here in Minnesota. But going back to that question I've been hearing, does Minnesota really need a Green New Deal to make the ambitious changes we need right now? I'm actually going to say no.
Those of you who support the idea of a Green New Deal might be thinking, wow, this guy doesn't like a policy that would invest in clean energy, marginalized communities, and well-paying American jobs. What does he possibly know? Maybe the better question is: What do we know?
Looking at data from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), we know that all five of the hottest years on record have occurred within the last five years, and the ten warmest years on record globally have occurred within the last two decades or so. We know that human activities are already contributing to climate change (confirmed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report issued last year) and that climate change is already hurting our most vulnerable communities and populations. Those climate-related risks impact health, food security, drinkable water supply, and economic growth.
The executive director of the International Energy Agency has said that energy production and use are the most important source of air pollution coming from human activity. A separate federal report last year found that climate change is already hurting US communities, as wildfires, flooding, and the magnitude of hurricanes have all increased.
So, we know that human activity, perhaps most importantly energy production and use, is causing climate change and that negative health impacts are being felt most among under-resourced communities and communities of color.
Data from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency shows that communities of color and under-resourced communities in Minnesota face increased risk of exposure to air pollution compared to more affluent communities and white households. We know that these discrepancies are also seen statewide, from the Twin Cities metro area to the sovereign First Nations lands in Minnesota. As the MPCA notes, areas of concern for environmental justice are found all across the state; this isn't an urban issue or a rural issue.
We know that under-resourced households spend a greater proportion of their household income toward energy costs compared to the average household. In my line of work we often use the phrase "energy burden" to describe the energy cost as a proportion of household income. Taking Minneapolis as an example, under-resourced households spend up to three times more of their income toward energy compared to the average household.
We also know that energy burden tends to be higher for renters compared to homeowners. A study by the Energy Efficiency for All project and the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy compared the energy burden between homeowners and renters and showed that, on average, in the forty-eight metro areas studied, homeowners had an average energy burden of about 3.3 percent compared to an energy burden for renters of 4 percent. Now, that discrepancy might not seem significant. But homeowners have the ability to make energy efficiency investments in their homes and are able to make decisions about their energy usage more directly, so the potential to reduce energy burden is much greater. Renters aren't able to invest in energy efficiency as easily.
We also know that solar energy is booming but that under-resourced households around the country disproportionately face barriers to go solar, including lack of upfront capital to pay for the cost of solar, or lack of access to financing. In the case of rooftop solar projects, an insufficient roof or lack of homeownership can be a barrier.
We also know that in Minnesota, clean energy and the clean energy economy is increasingly a major employer, with over 61,000 jobs in the clean energy sector in our state as of last year. But these jobs often require specialized training or education, which is often more difficult for under-resourced households and communities of color to access.
In a nutshell, we know a lot. And everything I've been citing is what the Green New Deal intends to address: clean energy, inequities, jobs, etc. You might have guessed by now that I actually think it's crystal clear: we do need a Green New Deal to respond to the scale and urgency of the problems that face us. From climate change, to growing income inequality, to racial and social justice issues, young people in our state and across the country are calling for government policy because their future is on the line--a future we hope will continue for generations to come. But until such a policy exists, and I would argue even once it passes, I believe it's incumbent on all of us to at least reflect its values.
We can and we must create ambitious and equitable energy and climate policy at all levels--from city policies, to regional planning, to state law. Here's what's great: we absolutely can start today to make sure that everyone benefits.
In Minnesota there is a powerful movement toward inclusive equitable energy policy that benefits all. It's called the 100 Percent Minnesota Campaign. In fact, just recently I read an article at the climate site Grist reporting that one in five people in the US now live in a place that's committed to 100-percent clean energy. That's incredible. That movement is already happening before the Green New Deal is a reality.
What are the steps to take to reach 100-percent clean energy? For one, we can push toward a public transportation system that doesn't worsen air pollution in our communities. Fresh Energy is proud to be part of a coalition that includes environmental justice advocates and community groups that successfully advocated for Metro Transit to develop a plan to electrify its bus fleet. In fact, the C-Line is starting up in Minneapolis and will feature Metro Transit's first-ever electric buses with more to be phased in across the fleet over the next couple of years. It's also important to make sure that everyone has access to purchase an electric vehicle, not just those who can afford to be early adapters. Part of this effort involves exploring public-private partnerships such as the upcoming agreement between Xcel Energy, Hour Car, and the City of Saint Paul, which would include an electric vehicle ridesharing program and public vehicle charging stations around the city.
We can also work to make sure that utility energy efficiency programs are reaching people in rental housing and that they adequately and sufficiently serve under-resourced communities and communities of color. Earlier this year the City of Minneapolis passed two energy disclosure policies that apply to potential home buyers and renters requiring that those folks have more access to energy usage information about the home or unit for which they are about to sign a mortgage or lease. This is significant for both potential homebuyers and renters, but is especially important for renters who historically haven't had that level of decision-making power. Now Minneapolis renters are able to better understand the true cost of renting a unit before they agree to do so.
The intent behind this policy is to drive more investment in energy efficiency and ensure that houses and rental units throughout Minneapolis are energy efficient and therefore more affordable. On a more global scale, energy efficiency means less demand on the grid, which means lower air pollution from sources like coal-fired power plants.
It's important to note that energy efficiency investments aren't completely free in most cases. It's important to ensure going forward that, especially in the case of rental units, any costs associated with energy efficiency improvements aren't somehow passed on to renters or to under-resourced households that are most sensitive to those costs.
We can work to make sure that solar energy is accessible for everyone, not just the few individuals and larger businesses that can afford the significant upfront cost or have the ability to leverage incentives like rebates and tax credits. We at Fresh Energy were proud to help secure Xcel Energy's first-ever income-eligible solar incentives within its Solar*Rewards rooftop solar incentive program. That helps bring down the upfront cost of solar for those customers and provides bill credits on an ongoing basis.
Last but certainly not least--and I can't emphasize this point enough--we can and must make sure that all voices are at the table; that solutions are created and driven by (or at a minimum in partnership with) the communities who will be most affected by climate change. We also have to be mindful that there are so many individuals and organizations that have been working on environmental justice and related issues for years, for decades, and that they need resources in order to continue that work.
This year Fresh Energy formalized its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, adding this section to its mission:
We cannot and should not do this work alone. We are committed to developing climate and energy solutions by collaborating with impacted communities and populations, supporting civic leadership, engaging authentically, and importantly building partnerships rather than pursuing transactional or extractive interactions.
It took a lot of intentional effort for our organization to finalize this statement, but it's important--and it's fundamental to how we carry out our work going forward.
Too often throughout history, during times of massive and transformational change, marginalized communities have been left out and left behind. Shared power, collective input, economic development and job creation, aggressive climate change mitigation strategies, and equitable and inclusive benefits are the pillars of a Green New Deal. Such a Green New Deal is a much needed policy vehicle that we unquestionably should be striving toward, but I would argue that all of these things are also critical metrics for us to judge the success of our current policies. Developing ambitious climate and energy policy that's inclusive and equitable is absolutely something we can do today.
A lawyer with experience in state politics, BEN PASSER is the director of energy access for Minnesota-based Fresh Energy, and he also supports the company's diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.
YOUTH PANELIST BIOGRAPHIES
Ana Martinez grew up in Mexico for most of her life, spent four years in Panama, and moved to Minnesota last summer. She is currently a freshman at Edina High School and a member of her school's environmental club, working on initiatives to raise awareness about the climate crisis and promote sustainability.
Katie Christiansen is a recent graduate of St. Louis Park High School who advocated for her city to implement a Climate Action Plan. She served as part of the core group that founded MN Can't Wait, a youth-led climate advocacy organization that recently released the MN Green New Deal bill.
Lia Harrel is the founder and leader of Minnetonka Climate Initiative, a coalition partnered with iMatter that is working with the City of Minnetonka to develop a climate action plan. She is an organizer for MN Can't Wait and is excited to study environmental policy at Claremont McKenna College next year.
Tiger Worku is a community organizer in the Seward Neighborhood of Minneapolis and recently co-authored Minnesota's first-ever youth-led MN Green New Deal bill. A rising senior in Minneapolis's South High School, he is passionate about diversity in the environmental movement.
PROJECT SWEETIE PIE: A NORTH MINNEAPOLIS MODEL FOR ENSURING FOOD SECURITY
By Catherine Fleming
I'm involved with a number of organizations that operate at the intersection of climate change, racial justice, and food security. One of these organizations is called Project Sweetie Pie, founded in 2010 by North Minneapolis food activist Michael Chaney. What prompted this initiative was the potential closing of North High School in Minneapolis. The community got together, they lobbied and protested, and ultimately they succeeded in keeping the high school open. During the process, Chaney noticed a greenhouse at the high school that had been fallow for a number of years. He contacted Rose McGee, who had a business selling sweet potato pies, and he asked: If I'm able to get high school students to start growing sweet potatoes in this greenhouse, would you buy them? That was the beginning of what we call Project Sweetie Pie.
Project Sweetie Pie is a nonprofit whose primary focus is food security in North Minneapolis, Minnesota, an area that has been designated as a food desert. What does this mean from the federal government's perspective? It means that access to healthy foods for local residents is a burden. It's the burden of not having access to grocery stores and local markets or the burden of having to take a bus downtown, come back up to the grocery store, buy your groceries, then take the bus back downtown just to take another bus to get home. This increases your burden because you have transportation costs and you're limited by how much food you can carry.
Beyond the North High garden, Project Sweetie Pie has been working with the City of Minneapolis to grow community gardens. We lease ten lots from the city that have been designated as available for growing foods. We have another twenty lots provided by private owners and also from landowners who want to grow food but need our assistance. So, we provide them with assistance on how to grow food and the means to do that. Of course, we are subject to being booted out of the city lots if a developer wants that land (even if we've had it for a year or multiple years), but this is just one of the challenges we navigate.
A lot of folks in North Minneapolis face all kinds of challenges. There are people who don't know where their next meal is coming from or what that next meal will look like. We have a saturation of fast food restaurants, and it's less expensive for me to get a Happy Meal than it would be for me to buy an orange at the local store. There are over 400 toxin sites identified by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in my ZIP code. There are another 300 in the adjoining ZIP code in North Minneapolis, which means we are an environmentally overburdened community. Our mission, therefore, as an organization and as a community, is to encourage people and provide them access to healthy foods in order to address some of the health disparities and other issues our community faces.
Making sure that the residents of North Minneapolis have access to healthy foods has morphed into a number of focus areas--improving their lives from a health perspective, from a transit perspective, working with government agencies, working with our political leaders, and working with the medical community, as well as crime prevention. You may be thinking, how does having a community garden impact crime prevention? Well, we've been written up and noted in newspapers for the fact that having young people working in the dirt, so to speak, has reduced crime. Working in the dirt and gardening has a cathartic effect on people. There is a mental and emotional aspect to being able to connect with the earth and connect with growing. We've seen that in so many areas and we're very proud of that impact.
Today, Project Sweetie Pie works with kids in day care centers growing food (we have pictures on our website of kids who are just absolutely ecstatic because they found a worm in the dirt). We love our kids. We love the young folks. We love our adults. We love our teams. We love all of the community working together in the garden, supporting each other and growing their own food.
And we do have government agencies that are working to support us. The city of Minneapolis has established a Green Zone Initiative (I'm one of its task force members from North and Northeast Minneapolis), and we have the Park Board, which has an agricultural policy in place. For one, they're allowing fruit trees to be grown. They had to actually change the law so that people would be able to pick the fruit from those trees because it had been illegal to do so.
We're also seeing change happening at the legislative level. House File 2738 establishes a community portal that will address food issues and establish a food system throughout the state, ensuring residents have access to healthy foods no matter where they are.
One thing Project Sweetie Pie is looking to achieve is significant farming season extension. One way to do that would be to build what we're calling a deep winter greenhouse. The University of Minnesota has an aggressive and extensive plan for a greenhouse. That's something we're looking for so that our residents will have year-round access to healthy food.
Recycling and composting is another area local residents are interested in. We call the composting we do at the Project Sweetie Pie community gardens our first harvest. It's not waste. Project Sweetie Pie's philosophy is that there is no waste--it's all reusable and recyclable.
One of the challenges we face as an organization is how to get more and more minorities involved. People of color, people who have their day-to-day challenges, may not have the luxury of being involved. To their credit, they are interested. They're concerned even though they may not show up at meetings. We seek to be part of their representation. We seek to make sure their voices are heard. We seek to make sure that their needs are put at the forefront of all the activities related not only to climate change, environmental overburden, and toxins but agriculture and other issues around economic development, health, and food security.
I've been working now on the Upper Harbor Terminal Project, which pertains to forty-eight acres of public land on the Mississippi River in North Minneapolis. The city has a plan that they've been working on with chosen developers, but we're asking through a number of community-led organizations that this land remain under the ownership of the community. We don't know what that legal structure would look like--it could be an agricultural cooperative, where farmers pool their resources to produce certain types of crops. It could be a land trust. But we want to make sure that the community has ownership and maintains ownership of that land.
Interestingly, of the 100 agricultural cooperatives in the US, Minnesota has the number one--CHS in Inver Grove Heights--and a total of three in the top ten. CHS is a mixed type, producing energy, supply food, and grain. Number three is St. Paul's Land O' Lakes, which is a dairy cooperative. There are also eight additional co-ops that are on the list. Minnesota is truly at the forefront of agricultural co-ops, partnerships (like Project Sweetie Pie and numerous others), and working together when we're talking about agriculture. We want to continue that.
CATHERINE FLEMING is an IT professional and real estate developer involved with a number of environmental groups and initiatives in the Twin Cities, including light rail extension, the City of Minneapolis's Green Zone Task Force, MICAH (Metropolitan Interfaith Council on Affordable Housing), the Environmental Justice Coordinating Council, and Project Sweetie Pie--a gardening program in schools and communities promoting urban farming, youth development, and access to healthy foods. Catherine is a proud North Minneapolis resident and a social advocate for her community.
Caption: Michael Chaney
A DEEP LOVE FOR THE COMMON GROUND
By Mysti Babineau
My name is Black Thunderbird. My colonized name is Mysti Babineau. I am a climate justice organizer and lobbyist with Minnesota 350, which is the state affiliate of the national 350.org founded in 2008 by the author/ environmentalist Bill McKibben and some college students. The term 350 comes from the parts per million of carbon in our atmosphere that scientists broadly agree is the safe level. We're currently over 400.
A little bit about me and how I came to be in this movement: I spent a lot of my time as a youth in the foster care system, and I've lived all over Minnesota. I have a deep love for this territory that we call Minnesota--from the grasslands to the boreal forest, to the numerous lakes and rivers. I truly love our Mother Earth.
As an Ojibwe, I was taught that the health of our communities is directly proportionate to the health of our planet. Our common ground is the ground that we stand upon, and if that ground and the water and the air are not okay, we're not going to be okay. A few years ago I was thinking of my children and about how there's no time now. I looked around at the world, and I knew that I had to do everything I could to make it a world they could survive in, where they would have opportunities to thrive.
So, I started doing some low-energy audits for community members and smaller businesses, and then I thought, that's not doing enough. Maybe if I got into construction and made sure that new buildings were energy efficient, using resource materials and so on, that would be away to help build this better future for my children. I think I knew that wasn't drastic enough for me. Then, in 2016, the Dakota Access Pipeline protest unfolded at the Standing Rock reservation, and I knew I couldn't stay silent anymore. I watched my relatives being brutalized for trying to protect water that millions depend on.
What does climate justice mean to me? I've been with MN350 for about two years now and I've noticed a shift whereby what we would traditionally consider social justice issue groups and environmental groups are moving towards one another. That's a beautiful thing to see.
This country was built on the blood and bones of its original inhabitants. Our government was set up in a way that kept the oppressors in power while the oppressed stayed oppressed. I firmly believe that we won't all be able to move forward together unless we're genuinely moving together in a good way. What does that mean? I'm privileged that I have a job that allows me to fight for what I believe in, that provides me a steady paycheck to provide a roof for my children. How do I use that privilege? I show up at the capitol. I lobby for bills or against bills that would be bad for our environment. Within the organization we are starting to use the privilege we have to be able to show up in order to take a stand on social justice issues.
So, how do climate change and social justice relate? How does the fossil fuel industry affect sex trafficking, for example? The multinational energy transportation company Enbridge is trying to build a tar sands oil pipeline through northern Minnesota that will go through several reservation boundaries and will clip the Mississippi headwaters. This is something people don't think about: we'll have all these construction workers here from out of state, mostly from Oklahoma. They're coming here for long periods of time, leaving their families at home, and they have a lot of money. The temptation to spend that money on drugs and women is often too much for these men to resist. So, when they're coming through and they're building these pipelines, women in these communities are going missing. And it's not just our sisters, it's our boys too.
How do we use our privilege to stand for those who are taken? In this case the fossil fuel industry contributes to sex trafficking, but this is an epidemic that has faced our people for some 500 years; Christopher Columbus was the first person to take our sisters and sell them.
I think we all understand that the earth is changing. When you look scientifically, our maple trees are moving north. I sat in a committee hearing this legislative session and I heard people much smarter than me state that my boreal forests--my medicines--are going to be gone in fifty years. Minnesota's not going to look like Minnesota anymore; we're going to look like Kentucky, and that broke my heart.
I shared with you my name that my ancestors gave me. I'm a part of the Bear Clan within my tribe, and the Bear Clan is responsible for knowing the herbs and plants, and for protecting those medicines. To hear that these medicines my people have used for millennia are going to be gone--it's heartbreaking. My people took hundreds and thousands of years to figure out what these plants could be used for. It's not pagan. It's not witchcraft. It has been scientifically proven, for example, that sage removes bacteria from the air. When we burn that sage, we're using it to cleanse. The cure for cancer could be right out there in the field. Remedies for anxiety, for numerous afflictions that take our loved ones could be right out there and we don't have to pay for it. We're losing that.
When I think about my own community, I often think about the other communities that have been left behind. I graduated from Lincoln Elementary in North Minneapolis. I was over there recently, and heard the fear and the worry in mothers talking about their children having asthma due to the air that they have to breathe, compounded by the worry of being able to afford medical assistance (what if I lose my job? Do I qualify for the county?). The thought of your child not being able to breathe is something that no mother, no father, no grandmother, no auntie or uncle should ever have to think about.
So, how do we unite? I think there are so many answers to that question, and there is so much hope. I've only been focused on the state legislature for a couple of years, but we've had so many successes. One thing I've learned is that when we show up in numbers, when we show up and we bring our friends, and we show up for our friends, we all do better. And by removing barriers to communities traditionally left behind, then we can quit asking: How do we best represent these stories? We don't have to worry about that anymore because they'll be with us. We all have a unique perception and view of the world and we're going to need all of that.
Because the science on climate change is scary. Sometimes I can't breathe when I read the reports, and I think that we only have ten years. I'll cry, and I'll go home, and I'll look at my kids. But we have to build the future. We have to dismantle the systems of oppression and pollution to build something beautiful. What if, instead of city zoning, we thought about community planning? What if you lived within walking distance of your doctor, of your community garden, of your workplace? Countries across the ocean are doing this. You have countries that are banning fuel-injected automobiles by 2030. We can do that here.
We are very fortunate in Minnesota to have so many natural resources. I think sometimes we take that for granted. And we're leaders here. We have some of the strictest environmental regulations in the country. I really feel that if we all were to come together and leave our labels and what separates us at the door, and we really ground ourselves in the ground, there's nothing we can't do together.
I was apprehensively happy when Democrat Tim Walz was elected governor of Minnesota. And what did people power do? What did unity do this year? We got Walz to refile the Enbridge Energy pipeline (Line 3) appeal. We got him to say that climate change is real and that it's a priority for his administration. His administration is legitimately talking about putting through some of the amendments in the 100-percent renewable clean energy bill put forth this year by Democratic State Rep. Jamie Long. We are making progress, and we're also showing up for those causes that our neighbors are unable to participate in.
I think sometimes it's easy or maybe human of us to feel so weighed down. When you're going to these events, you're going to these hearings, you're going to these public meetings, it's that same group of forty people you see everywhere. Now, what if we had childcare at these events? What if we were passing out bus cards and gas cards for our community members and our neighbors to attend? Then we wouldn't feel so lonely. We would see that this movement is bigger than what's being shown to us right now.
I firmly believe that we need to take the lead and offer our guidance. I do not like being referred to as Indigenous. I feel that dehumanizes me by putting me in a large group. I am an Anishinaabe. I am Ojibwe. Our people knew how to live in harmony with the land. We didn't have prisons. There were no locks because everybody had a role, everybody was taken care of. That's not just a story that was passed down--it's in my DNA. When I see these horrific environmental disasters, I legitimately cry. That pain comes from deep inside of me; it's in my blood to love this land. It's in my DNA to fight and to think about the seven generations coming after me.
So, I encourage everyone to do some deep reflection and think about the world you want your great-great-grandbabies to grow up in. What does it look like? What does her community look like? What does his education look like? And I want you to talk to your friends and your neighbors and your coworkers. Share your ideas, organize, reach out--there is so much more good in this world than there is darkness.
MYSTI BABINEAU is the climate justice organizer for MN350, leading its Climate Majority Project and coordinating the work of the Policy Action Team. She also serves as the Honor the Earth's legislative liaison to the Indigenous and People of Color Caucus in the Minnesota state legislature.
THE HEART OF CLIMATE JUSTICE: CREATING THE ENERGY INFRASTRUCTURE WE WANT TO SEE
By Timothy Denherder-Thomas
I want to start by talking a little about the journey that brought me to my work as general manager of Cooperative Energy Futures, because I think it's taught me a lot about what climate justice means, about the world we live in right now, and what we need to do about it.
I grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey, right across the river from Manhattan. It's very similar economically and demographically to the Bronx or Harlem or Brooklyn (or at least Brooklyn up until about ten years ago). It was a place where you could see the fractures and the differences in our communities. You had folks pushing shopping carts containing all their belongings walking down the street right next to executives making many millions of dollars a year, even taking the subway together. Jersey City was one of the main centers for chromium chemical manufacturing in the country. (Chromium in water was what Erin Brockovich sued Pacific Gas & Electric for in the 1990s.) Jersey City has the highest concentrations of chromium in the United States. It was actually used as construction-fill in homes about 150 years ago, so now this carcinogen is in 600 sites all across our community, including residential homes.
I grew up about a mile and a half away from one of the dirtiest coal plants in the country, in a county where a million people drive every day, going from the suburbs in Greater New Jersey to New York City on massive highways that break communities where most people don't have access to transportation. Where there are no grocery stores. I grew up having all sorts of respiratory problems and am really thankful to now be able to live in a place like Minnesota where, despite being a city that still has air-quality issues, I don't have to deal with those problems on a daily basis. In that sense, climate justice has been about the air I breathed since I was born.
I didn't look at it as an environmental issue when I was growing up. I felt that we'd built a society that didn't make sense in a lot of ways--that we'd built our communities so that some people had wealth and access to unimaginable resources, and people right next door couldn't eat, couldn't have light and heat, were living in housing infested with roaches, and were having to work forty to sixty, sometimes up to eighty hours a week just to pay for their basic needs while still going into debt. It's bewildering to consider that this is what we're doing. This doesn't make any sense.
At the same time, I found myself in awe of how it was possible, in the midst of all this pollution, all of this destruction--both ecological and human--that there were still all these birds making their life in the city. That the trees were still growing. They were finding a way to do it, creating the capacity for life to grow and thrive and make a living here in this place where I was also growing up and that was literally toxic.
For me, it was the beginning of an exploration into what it is to build a very different kind of community, a very different type of society. I have been organizing in some way, shape, or form since I was in high school. I was very focused on energy issues because I look at energy and I see it as the lifeblood of a society. It's what fuels our industry, our transportation; it organizes how we can literally structure our cities and our communities; it really is at the center of how we do what we do.
One of the things I'm really inspired by today is that, as desperate as the situation is and as far behind as we are in engaging with the likelihood of environmental collapse, it's a conversation we're having now. It's a conversation happening in hundreds and thousands of communities all across the world. That wasn't the case in any real way when I was growing up.
I remember when I was eleven or twelve years old, I read that a whole bunch of scientists were saying that sometime in the next seventy years we were going to face catastrophic environmental collapse unless we dramatically transformed. And I was doing the math--thinking, okay, I'm going to be, what, eighty-one when that happens. How come nobody was talking about this?
Around that same time, I committed to spending my life making a different world. To be clear, I didn't really believe it was possible. I believed, and I still think there's a pretty decent chance, that even if we invested deeply in a just, sustainable, healthy, thriving world, we're unlikely to get there. But I'm committed to it anyway because the alternative is unlivable.
I think there's a very important emotional and psychological journey we must go on as we're dealing with something as gigantic as climate change, which is to realize that we're not going to have a big happy ending to this in any of our lifetimes. Even if we were to transform our whole economy, our whole climate, the impacts ahead would still be severe. Looking at the science, at the math, if we were to stop burning all the fossil fuels immediately, we'd experience economic and societal collapse. And yet, even if we shut all of that down, the atmosphere would keep warming because of all the carbon and all the methane already in the atmosphere. The impacts we're seeing--the hurricanes and the fires and all--are just the beginning.
So we're simultaneously stepping into this process of transforming all of our systems far faster than we think is possible or may even be possible--transforming our energy system, our food system, the design of our cities and our transportation--and we also have to be in a place socially and politically where we're ready to take care of each other in a world far less predictable and far more chaotic than the one we live in right now. That was sort of the emotional moment I was stepping into as a teenager. Very scary. (It's still very scary.)
That sense of being overwhelmed by something I had committed to with all my heart started to change after I graduated from high school. In the summer of 2005 a friend and I took a bus up to Boston and met up with these folks, mostly college students, who were launching what was at that time called the Climate Campaign. This was tied to the origin of the Energy Action Coalition and the Power Shift conferences, which planted the seeds in the mid-2000s of a massive wave of youth activism on college campuses. And that wave extended into youth action pushing the federal government on the United Nations' processes around climate change. Over the past fifteen years, this movement has grown as more and more youth are saying: we need to head in a very different direction; we need to take a stand; we need to lead. We need to lead locally in our communities, in the spaces in which we control and can influence our colleges, our communities. And we need to demand that same sort of leadership from our cities, from our states, from our federal government, from the whole global community. That has evolved and grown into something that's much bigger and deeper than what we had fifteen years ago.
Attending the Climate Campaign meeting in 2005 brought the revelation that I'd been trying to organize high school students who weren't thinking about things like climate change very much. And there was this whole network of people working at a much larger scale who had real insight into how to organize and how to make change, and they were going for it. That was really inspiring. Yet coming from the community that I come from, it was also very clear that a lot of this conversation was about college campuses. Climate solutions on campus are great and we have to make change there, but it's a very privileged perch of our overall society. Additionally, most of the action was happening in the northeast and California, but what about the middle of the country? What about the South? What about rural America? What does it take to bring organizing and change-making for climate justice to the rest of our communities?
Exposure to the youth climate movement and to environmental nonprofits working on climate change also allowed me to notice some challenges in how change agents were talking about climate. For so long climate change has been perceived and talked about as a pollution problem: we just have to clean up these power plants; we have to put some new technology on these devices and make them cleaner--that's really all it is. Not a question of: How are we all making a living? How are we all eating? How are we all getting housed and transported and powered? How do we reimagine, rebuild, and reinvent everything that we need every day?
This is an incredibly daunting and exciting question. If we can address it, we can make a much better world for all sorts of other reasons that relate to the deep injustices in our society. This work is not optional because it's not like carbon is some contaminant in our energy supply. It is fundamental to the chemical reaction of fossil fuels. It's just part of the process if you're burning stuff. What does it look like to have an energy system and build an economy that's not based on burning stuff? Western civilization has been burning more and more concentrated forms of energy for 400-500 years. It's time to head on a different track that reconnects us to energy sources that are based in our communities and based in our local ecosystems, and to have a much deeper relationship with that energy and those ecosystems.
With this I dove into the work head on. At the college level, I organized young people across the Midwest and in different colleges and universities. I also started to explore how we actually make this work for a new type of economy. I did some work on redevelopment plans for the Ford site in St. Paul, and ten years ago helped launch the energy co-op that I'm working on today. And I did youth leadership development, basically training high school and college-aged young people in how to knit together community organizing and local economic development to create solutions.
Through all of that, I've learned that the opportunity in front of us is limitless. We can build new food systems that are healthier, protect the land, and create long-term stability in rural communities. We can transform our transportation sector. We can rebuild how we do energy. We can reorganize our cities. We can build healthier housing and community structures. Which begs the question: Why aren't we going forth and doing this?
Allow me to use this as a quick transition into talking about infrastructure, specifically one infrastructure system I spend a lot of time on: the US electric grid--the largest machine on earth. The electronic devices and equipment I use on a daily basis are connected through a set of wires to substations in North Minneapolis and downtown and probably out in St. Louis Park which are connected to transmission lines that snake across Minnesota and into the Dakotas and Wyoming and out to Chicago. Ultimately, it's networked all across the continent.
Electricity flows through that system at basically the speed of light. Every single mile of the high-voltage transmission lines--the big ones carrying power between cities and power plants, not counting the little ones running through your neighborhood--add up to somewhere around 600,000 miles and cost about a million dollars per mile. And there are many hundreds of power plants networked into the system that cost anywhere between $500 million and $2 billion. We're talking about an infrastructure in our energy system that has literally trillions of dollars invested in it over a span of many decades. This electric system is somewhere around 40 percent of our climate problem, but it's not the only system we're dealing with. It's just the one that I happened to spend a lot of time on. We also have our transportation system, which is many trillions of dollars invested in highway networks which are continuing this cycle of emitting carbon. And we have an industrial food system which has made this massive investment in a certain way that we produce food. I could go on.
And just to be clear, when I say we, I mostly mean Wall Street, and to some extent the federal government and other government agencies. We've put a lot of our capital, a lot of our value as we define it in a society, into building and maintaining this system. There's a very strong and entrenched interest in making sure it continues to operate the way it currently operates.
That whole big system is also intimately connected with our daily lives. You probably don't think about it, but you spend a lot of time turning on switches and plugging things into outlets, and even when you don't, you're participating in energy-using infrastructure, be it lights or electronics, refrigerated and cooked food, or climate-controlled buildings. In some ways, this is very familiar; we all pay for this energy every month. Yet, we probably don't think about it very much, which raises a bunch of questions about this energy interaction that we don't ask often enough.
The first question is: Why do I pay my current energy company? Did anyone ever ask you where you want to get that power from? No. We've created a political and economic framework where, at least in Minnesota and many other states around the country, you only have one choice about where you get your power. We as a state, as a government, have said that this company gets to have monopoly control over all the customers who want electricity, and I don't know many people who don't want electricity.
This raises a second key question: How do we know we're getting a fair deal for our energy? Because there's no competition, there's nobody else saying, well, I could do the same thing cheaper because you have to pay this one company. How many of us actually spend the time to really understand how the Public Utilities Commission over in our city regulates utilities to set rates, which is a super complicated process? Even as somebody who spends a lot of time in this work, really digging into it and understanding the weeds of it, it's basically impossible. So how do we know that we're really getting a fair shake?
A third question: How do we know if these companies--that our policymakers have largely entrusted with the decision-making power over how we do energy--are going to make the transition to clean energy for us? Recently, Xcel Energy (our electricity provider in Minneapolis) announced that they were committing to a hundred percent carbon-free by 2050. That's sounds really great, but Xcel is also currently trying to purchase a natural gas power plant that will operate through 2059. The only explanation that I've been able to come up with is they're expecting to use massive-scale carbon capture and sequestration, which is a technology that doesn't exist yet in any cost-effective form. Nevertheless, the utility company we're currently bound to wants to charge into buying more dirty energy infrastructure that is also polluting people's water and hurting people's air and all those other things. The monopoly utilities have a strong incentive to appear to their public regulators as leaders on clean energy, but the details behind the scenes are not so promising.
The point is, we have for a very long time put the complete control of this market into the hands of the companies that are invested in making a lot of money off of a dirty energy system. If we impose laws requiring, for example, that they have to do 30 percent renewable energy, the way they go about it is to build a giant centralized wind farm somewhere, which is very cheap for them. They get a great return on investment in building that. And because its all in one location, if it's not windy right there at a given time, backup power is needed. How do they provide backup power? They build a natural gas plant, on which they also make a great investment return while fueling yet more climate change.
Are there other ways we could structure this relationship? Yes, many. Take community solar. This is a really transformational shift in how we do energy in Minnesota because it's really the first time where a state government has said, yes, somebody other than the utility has the right to put clean energy onto the grid and provide services to end-user customers, to residents, to companies, and so on. It's made a huge difference.
At the beginning of 2016, there were thirty-seven megawatts of solar installed in the State of Minnesota. Since then we've installed about a gigawatt, so a thousand megawatts of solar in the state. To reiterate that, we've installed more than twenty times as much solar in the past three years as we did in the entire previous thirty. This is changing the dynamics of how we do energy so that other people can participate in the market.
This doesn't necessarily mean that it's equitable. In fact, when we say community solar, 90 percent of it here in Minnesota is serving commercial and industrial customers. And most of the remaining 10 percent is serving residents who have a credit score of680 or over. If you're a low-income household, statistically you have a lower credit score and you're spending the highest proportion of your income on energy. If this is how the community solar industry continues, the benefits of community-owned renewable energy won't be available to people who need them the most. On the whole, that's how we've set-up the economic and market structure of how we're pursuing renewable energy.
As a clean energy co-op, Cooperative Energy Futures thinks that's wrong, and we've developed a community energy cooperative to create clean-energy solutions that work for everyone. We've created a model whereby if you subscribe to a community solar garden, you don't have to pay anything upfront, and each month you get a discount on your utility bill. We allow renters and low-income households to participate with no credit-score requirements. This means that for the first time, people participating in local clean energy get an immediate savings on their monthly energy cost without having to pay anything upfront. Remember, this is actually how the utilities do it; you don't pay anything up front for access to all their dirty energy infrastructure--you just pay a monthly utility bill.
The Shiloh Temple project is the first cooperatively owned community solar garden we've developed. It's on the rooftop of the Shiloh Temple in North Minneapolis and serves the church, a neighboring mosque, and about twenty-six community residents. All of the subscribers are member-owners, and as a co-op, any profit generated goes back to members. We developed this in partnership with a large range of community-based organizations that are working to bring these opportunities to North Minneapolis. We also did pretty robust workforce development; some of the folks who worked on the installation crew have now done installations for several of our other community solar gardens, and one crewmember ran for and was elected to our board. So we have this kind of closed loop where you get to work in this sector, you get to subscribe, but you also get to govern. You get to be part of the decision-making process, the ownership process, the guidance of where we're going with this whole clean-energy future.
That's part of the different relationship to energy we're trying to cultivate. What does it look like when customers actually understand where their energy is coming from, how it's being produced, and ultimately how that matches their use? So that we're no longer just using energy, and somebody out there has to provide it for us by some means that is probably destroying the planet and our future.
That project is actually one of the smallest projects that we've developed. We have a total of eight that are either operational or under construction. Some of these are rooftop systems in various parts of the Twin Cities, several of which are 1.3-megawatt projects with some 150 households participating. We have some ground mounts both in Southern Minnesota and up near St. Cloud, and we're also in construction on a project at Ramp A right next to Target Field where the Minnesota Twins play.
The big thing I want to say in closing is that this is about changing the economics and changing the politics of who has control over the decisions. We're no longer going to say, yes, energy utility--you've been able to control and have a monopoly over all of our energy wealth, which is hundreds and millions every year in a city like Minneapolis. We'll trust you, for some strange reason, to manage that system correctly for all of us, even though your profit motive incentivizes all kinds of abuse of that trust. Instead, we--as individuals, as communities, as cities, working together--are going to make the choice to create the energy infrastructure we want to see. To extend this argument beyond energy infrastructure, we're making the choice with the housing systems that we want to create. We're making the choice of the food systems we want to create, with the urban design we want to create. I think that's really what's at the heart of climate justice.
Climate justice is about carbon and all of that big regulation stuff, but also about building a movement. If we look at urgency simply in terms of how we get more widgets out quickly, we're going to miss the critical opportunity to create a very different political landscape where everyone understands what's at stake, and everyone understands this is the opportunity for all of us, not just a tiny little handful of activists, but all of us to get in the game and make change. I think that's the only shot we have at ensuring a thriving future.
TIMOTHY DENHERDER-THOMAS is the general manager of Cooperative Energy Futures, which develops community solar gardens to help families reduce their energy bills by offering solar at no upfront cost. He's the cofounder of Grand Aspirations, supporting teams of youth innovators working on green solutions in their communities, and he's active with Community Power, a Minnesota coalition that secured the nation's first city-utility Clean Energy Partnership in Minneapolis.
CLIMATE JUSTICE PRESCRIPTION: WHATEVER YOU DO, IT WILL HAVE AN IMPACT
by Vishnu Laalitha Surapaneni
I'm a physician in internal medicine at the University of Minnesota. I also belong to Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate--a group of over 400 Minnesotan health professionals working to protect the health of Minnesotans from climate change. I would like to discuss how climate change impacts some people more than others. Before I do that, I want to acknowledge my privilege as a physician. I have the means to choose where I live, I have the knowledge necessary to protect myself from climate-health impacts, and I have access to healthcare. But that is not the case with many of the patients I see, and certainly not the case with many people in India where I'm from.
When we say climate change impacts health, what do we really mean? Allow me to share a story that's a composite of several stories of patients for whom I've provided care. I've changed their names and demographics for privacy. I'll talk first about a six-year-old. Let's call her Sarah. She lives in the inner city and she has asthma. Her mom has to work two jobs to pay for Sarah's medicines and school, their groceries, rent, and so on. Sarah plays outside in the summer, largely because they want to save money on electricity. But summer air isn't good for her because during hot summers the air stagnates, and pollutants released from cars and buildings all bake together in sunlight and form ground-level ozone.
Now, we all know about the ozone layer that's supposed to protect us. When ozone is at the ground level, it's bad for our health and can trigger asthma attacks. So, Sarah now gets an asthma attack and her mom has to take time off work to take her to the emergency room. This is the fifth time Sarah has gone to the ER this year; her mom's boss isn't happy with her taking another day off and thinks maybe she should find another job.
Sarah comes into the hospital. As she receives treatment with inhalers, she feels better and luckily doesn't have to be admitted. But now her mom is stuck with a huge bill. She has to decide whether she wants to pay the bill or pay their rent. Not paying the rent puts them closer to eviction.
This is not a fictional story; this is something I see my patients go through daily--the challenges of trying to afford their medications and distributing that money in the rest of their lives. In fact, a survey of those who received energy bill assistance at least once in five years showed that about a third of the households could not afford to fill a prescription to full dose, and about one in five households had someone become sick because their home was too cold. These problems are compounded by many social justice issues including lack of access to affordable healthcare, low wages, and systemic racism in medicine and housing practices, which demonstrates that climate injustice does not exist in isolation. Today, four out of ten Americans live in areas with air pollution levels that are unhealthy. African Americans are exposed to 40 percent more polluted air compared to their white counterparts. African Americans are seventy-five percent more likely to live in fence-line communities (neighborhoods right next to fossil fuel infrastructure) than the average American. Since the 1970s, after the Clean Air Act was passed, our air quality has improved, but climate change is now cutting into those gains and increasing the number of high-ozone days--the climate penalty.
Now let's take a trip to India to meet another six-year-old. She lives in a village just outside New Delhi. She lives in a hut where her mother uses an open cook stove. Because the child is a girl, she's not allowed to go to school, so she spends most of her time in the house breathing in the smoke from the cook stove. There's also a great deal of outdoor air pollution, all of which puts her at risk for getting pneumonia. And in her village, climate change is resulting in drought, which means her family doesn't have access to enough food and she's very malnourished. When she does get pneumonia, her family doesn't have the money to take her to a doctor, and with no hospital close by, she dies.
Seven million people each year around the world die prematurely from air pollution and one-third of the burden is in Southeast Asia. Again, there are so many issues at play here and climate change is not the only one--issues of gender inequality, food insecurity, and lack of access to healthcare are also involved.
Heat is another effect of climate change that impacts health. Urban heat island effects are especially prominent in the city vs. rural areas. The people most vulnerable to heat exposure are young children who play outside, construction workers, the elderly, and people who aren't able to go inside, including the homeless population. In the United States, 24 million more Americans were exposed to extreme heat in 2011 and 12.3 million more in 2016 when compared to 2000, exposing them to health effects including potentially lethal heat stroke. The impacts are a lot more severe in countries like India and Pakistan. In Pakistan in 2015, for example, many children and older people were among the 2,000 who died in a heat wave that saw temperatures as high as 120 degrees. With limited access to heat warning systems and adaptation measures like air-conditioning, heat waves result in more fatalities in low-resource settings.
Another way climate change affects health is in the form of extreme weather events, specifically hurricanes. The first deaths from hurricanes happen from drowning, injury, or electrocution. Once the storm passes, especially in a case like Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico where the entire islands infrastructure was destroyed, people have no access to healthcare. Many roads were washed away in that 2017 disaster, If someone had a heart attack they couldn't get to a hospital. Likewise, people with kidney failure who needed dialysis were unable to receive it, as the procedure depends upon electricity and clean water. There was also a lack of access to clean drinking water resulting in many water-borne infections.
In the case of Maria, for a death to be certified the body had to be taken to San Juan to a medical officer. That's not a priority when you lose your home and your loved ones, and you have no access to food, electricity, or safe drinking water. So, in the aftermath, researchers who were trying to determine the death toll of the Hurricane went door to door and spoke with the residents about the loved ones they lost. Because it took so long for the infrastructure and services to return to baseline, the death toll kept rising. I particularly remember the coverage around Maria being very similar to how we talk about disasters in developing countries. It is framed as the fault of the effected; those people didn't have good systems to begin with and that's why they faced such massive, adverse effects was a commonly expressed sentiment.
Last March, intense Tropical Cyclone Idai hit Mozambique. What's unnerving with this hurricane is the damages they sustained despite planning for it. As Daviz Simango, mayor of Beira, explained in an NPR interview, they knew that climate change was going to cause more severe storms in their area, so they had storm water systems set up to tackle flooding and wave barriers. What they didn't plan for were the high winds that resulted in so much infrastructure loss. This was a stark reminder that we need to continue to learn and develop new ways to adapt to climate change. This also shows that the so-called developed countries can learn from developing countries when it comes to climate adaptation. In many parts of the world, you don't have the luxury to deny climate change because you're already suffering the impacts.
In India, for example, this May Cyclone Fani hit Orissa--one of the poorest states in the country. But the hurricane warning systems and evacuation measures were remarkably successful, which meant a minimal death toll. This is why I do not like the word "vulnerable" to describe people who face the worst of climate impacts. It generates a certain sense of pity, can put the burden on the people suffering the impacts, and doesn't talk about the many social injustices that created these inequalities--for example, on a global scale from centuries of colonization and exploitation for resources.
Data from the Poor People's Campaign shows that as household income goes up, the amount of greenhouse gases produced goes up as well. And people with low income suffer the impacts of climate change more. A study published in March by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that African Americans experience 56 percent more air pollution than they're responsible for producing; Hispanic communities experience 63 percent more than they produce; and Caucasians experience 17 percent less pollution than they produce. On a global scale, the top 10 percent of the richest countries produce almost 50 percent of the world's greenhouse gases, while the poorest 50 percent contribute only 10 percent. Since the Trump administration came into power, over seventy-eight environmental regulations have been rolled back. By definition every time you weaken environmental regulations, some people will be impacted more than others.
It took me some time to figure out my place in the environmental movement. I thought, I'm not a climate scientist or a policy expert. What do I know? So I went to the community that was already working on an environmental justice issue and asked how my skillset as a doctor could help. That is when I understood that I could use my scientific knowledge to push for climate policies that would also protect our health. While I was working at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore, I testified for the Maryland Department of Environment on the environmental justice aspects of a local incinerator. Another issue I worked on was restricting oil trains. There are efforts around the country to limit oil transport through pipelines. The oil companies then transport oil via train tankers. The hospital I was working at was right next to the railroad tracks for one of these oil trains. I worked on a campaign to pass landmark climate legislation to limit crude oil trains passing through the city of Baltimore. In Minnesota, I'm now working on policies for renewable energy, clean electric transportation, and limiting the spread of fossil fuel infrastructure including pipeline 3, which is an Enbridge pipeline that proposes to bring 760,000 barrels of crude oil from Alberta, Canada, to Superior, Wisconsin, via Minnesota.
So, how do we work towards climate justice? As we've seen, climate change never impacts people in isolation. It is a "threat multiplier" in the framework of societal injustices like systemic racism, gender inequality, and marginalization of low-income families. This can seem very overwhelming, but there's also another way to look at it. Not all of us have the calling to work on climate or climate justice issues. But the key is recognizing that no matter how you intervene, if you are working to right a societal wrong, you will bring us closer to climate justice. GS
DR. VISHNU LAALITHA SURAPANENI, MD, MPH, is a practicing internal medicine physician at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, board member of Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility, steering committee member for the 100% Minnesota campaign, and an executive committee member of Health Professionals for Health Climate.
Caption: Right to left: Climate Justice speakers Catherine Fleming, Ben Passer, Mysti Babineau, Timothy Denherder-Thomas, Vishnu Laalitha Surapaneni, and Bailey Webster
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|Date:||Jul 1, 2019|
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