by Colette Pichon Battle
It’s hard to listen to the news each day without hearing another story of extreme weather.
Hurricane Harvey caught our attention in August when it hit Houston, one of this nation’s largest cities. Then Hurricane Irma hit the Caribbean and Florida hard, followed by Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
For those of us from the Gulf Coast, these storms were an eerie reminder of the reality of our geography: We are always vulnerable to storms churning in the warm waters of the Gulf. The threats are of course worsening due to climate change. Science makes that clear.
Hurricane Irma looked like Hurricane Katrina in 2005, one of the largest storms in history – she looked dangerous and she moved fast. But it was the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands that most reminds me of the aftermath of Katrina. Watching Americans struggle to survive for extended periods without electricity, food, water, healthcare, school, and listening to national conversations about whether these folks “deserve help,” whether they are “Americans or citizens,” whether they’re an economic benefit or a social burden is eerily familiar and disturbing.
Climate change is already here, already hitting those who are least responsible for this consequence and least able to recover. And, it is in the midst of recovery from climate disaster where one can find clarity around what human rights are – global standards for basic human dignity and measurements for government accountability. This is the moment when you realize the connection between human rights and the climate crisis. And this is the moment when you realize that the human rights standards enforced by the United States, when measuring responses of other countries to their citizens, are often abandoned when responding to Americans.
A large portion of the greenhouse gas emissions that are warming our earth and increasingly disrupting our weather are from industries that extract and refine fossil fuel extraction – oil, gas and coal. These extractive industries are rooted in our American extractive economy, an economy tied to the worst parts of our history, the biggest challenges of our current social reality, and as well as our global future. It’s painful but necessary to recognize that the American principle of extraction – taking for profit without replenishing for sustainability – was at the roots of the American slave trade, it is at the heart of American colonization of places like Puerto Rico and American militarization in places like the Middle East. This extractive economy is also the root cause of America’s mass incarceration of black and brown people.
In parallel to this year’s climate disasters – hurricanes in the Gulf and the Caribbean, wildfires in the Pacific West, drought in the plain states – we’ve had political disasters. And not all of them come from the Trump presidency. But there’s something different happening under this president, and we need to connect the dots. We have a president who does not believe in climate change and has declared our country’s withdrawal from a global agreement to address the greenhouse gas emissions that are accelerating the climate crisis.
We have a former oil industry executive, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, as our top diplomat and liaison to the rest of the world. The head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, comes from Oklahoma, the state that has increased earthquakes – the most in the country – induced by oil and gas extraction – the flaring and burning of which is the primary source of climate change. We see the country’s top leaders entrenched in the promotion of fossil fuels and dirty energy, just as we see climate disasters and extreme weather on the increase in so many places.
We don’t have to look a thousand miles away to see the impacts of burning fossil fuels. The EPA reports that the children of Nicetown, a neighborhood just a few miles from Chestnut Hill, are four times more likely to have asthma than an average American child. This is tied to the fine-particle air pollution there, which is 78 percent higher than the average American neighborhood. And not coincidentally, the population of Nicetown is more than 92 percent black and brown people.
The solution to the climate crisis will require us to find new ways of existing in better balance with the earth and with one another. The climate movement must be rooted in justice and must be courageous enough to see the connections of the extractive economy to issues like disaster recovery, mass incarceration, environmental justice, immigration and voting rights. We need this earth, we need each other, and we need to engage in creating a more sustainable society.
Our earth is in trouble. Our protection, our home, our communities, our neighbors, our networks, our culture, our traditions, and our connection to one another must be calculated in the anticipated loss that comes with inaction.
Colette Pichon Battle, Esq., is executive director of the U.S. Human Rights Network. She preached at Chestnut Hill United Church on Oct. 22.