Growing up, I never really thought about climate change in any real way.
It was not discussed in my household, nor do I remember anyone mentioning it in school, growing up or even reading about it in any textbook — which is actually the crux of my climate story.
As an African American, I now realize that my community hasn’t really engaged or been engaged with the subject of climate change. But what we do have is a history in fighting for justice. I am now understanding that this is a climate justice fight, no less important as a social justice, racial justice, or the criminal justice fight. Elizabeth Yeampierre, co-chair of the Climate Justice Alliance, agrees. In an interview with Yale 360, Elizabeth draws a direct line from slavery and the rapacious explotation of people along with natural resources to current issues of environmental justice: “People who got the worst food, the worst health care, and the worst treatment, and then when freed, were given lands that were eventually surrounded by things like petrochemical industries.”
Yeampierre describes the fight against climate change and racial injustice as deeply intertwined, noting that the transition to a low-carbon future is connected to “workers’ rights, land use, [and] how people are treated,” and she criticizes the mainstream environmental movement, which she says was “built by people who cared about conservation, who cared about wildlife, who cared about trees and open space…but didn’t care about black people.”
Unfortunately, in my life I have experienced this truth.
As we all know, the communities that are near power plants, petrochemical plants, factories, and other sources of pollution are disproportionately in Black and Brown communities. This negatively impacts the health (and wealth) of our people. Climate change makes air pollution worse, and this will exacerbate significant inequities already being experienced in African American communities and other communities of color.
A recent study found that African Americans breathe in 56% more particulate matter than they produce from their consumption.
Polluted air is especially harmful for African Americans who have conditions which make it hard to breathe, such as asthma. African Americans with asthma have an almost three times higher chance of going to the hospital or dying from an asthma attack than whites.
Unfortunately, this is not discussed in our communities much. More than likely due to it not being what some would consider a visible threat. In the African American community, issues of poverty, disinvestment, crime, food deserts, lack of adequate healthcare often feel more pressing, because these issues have a tendency to feel more immediate. As a result it can feel like climate change and how it is affecting us is not a priority.
As a teacher, I’ve always chosen to work in impoverished communities; what I initially thought was the extreme lack of concern, is really a lack of knowledge. I’ve come to realize that my community hasn’t been included in a real way in the climate conversation. I want to change this. This is why I am committed to doing more to enlighten my community on the climate crisis and how it is connected to every issue that we are facing and we have to care about it now.
I believe that when people know better, they do better.
I feel it is important for me to sound the alarm for myself, and my community, but also for the future of my community.
Deborah Riddle is a special education teacher in Chicago Public Schools and a member of Climate Generation’s Window into COP26 Delegation this November. Through teaching, she has made it her business to ensure that students understand that their practices today affect us all now and for generations to come. Learn more about Deborah and subscribe to follow her experience at COP26.