As activists and leaders from around the world travel to New York this week to rally global efforts to address the climate crisis, I’m reminded of our own state’s history-making contributions to the environmental cause.
In 1982, Warren County sparked a movement when local residents of the poor, mostly African American community rose up to oppose the dumping of toxic chemicals in their neighborhoods. In doing so, they rallied attention to an issue that marginalized communities have known for a long time – that problems like air pollution and water contamination affect vulnerable populations like people of color first and worst.
Their efforts are widely recognized as the start of the modern environmental justice movement, and while these activists tragically did not change the site of the landfill in question, they did capture the attention of the federal government.
The resulting 1983 release of a report from the General Accounting Office outlined the rampant problem of siting toxic landfills in majority African American communities throughout the Southeast. Decades later, we are still bearing witness to the out-sized impacts that these environmental hazards have on low-income families and communities of color.
As a leader in developing programs to address environmental justice in North Carolina by working and listening to impacted people, as well as a lifelong biomedical researcher, I intimately understand the repercussions of these injustices on the lives of the marginalized. While it’s encouraging to see a worldwide focus on efforts to eliminate carbon pollution, we cannot afford to ignore the lack of justice for our most vulnerable right here in North Carolina.
The impacts that climate change has on public health are well known. Carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants contributes to smog, which in turn exacerbates problems for those with asthma and other related conditions. When you add in the inequalities inherent in where African Americans in North Carolina live, and what kind of access they have to health care, you get shocking disparities in how climate change affects those communities.
Nationwide, more than two-thirds of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant. This is a large part of why the EPA has found that, when it comes to the effects of air pollution, Black communities have a 54 percent higher health burden compared to the overall population. For children suffering from asthma, Black children are an astounding ten times more likely to die as a result of their condition compared to their white peers. This underlines why the impacts of climate change are of particular salience for these communities, and why we must be vigilant in recognizing these impacts when we craft policy.
Unfortunately, this recognition hasn’t been coming from our leaders in Washington. In rollback after rollback, the Trump administration has repeatedly taken actions that will actively harm the health and well-being of vulnerable populations in North Carolina. Just last week, our attorney general, Josh Stein, joined the attorneys general of 22 other states in challenging the Trump administration’s efforts to limit the abilities of states to set their own vehicle emissions standards. The silence of Sen. Thom Tillis and Sen. Richard Burr on this harmful attack on our air quality has been deafening.
What’s undeniable is the need for our state and our country to fully transition to a 100 percent clean energy economy, one that recognizes the entrenched inequities of our current system and seeks to take substantive steps toward addressing them.
Several weeks ago, I traveled to Washington, D.C. as part of the National Medical Association’s annual fly-in to urge our federal representatives to take affirmative steps toward a net-zero carbon pollution future, and to remind them of the communities who stand to be hurt the most should we fail to act. Here in North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper has taken the first step toward action with last year’s executive order outlining his administration’s commitment to addressing climate change by transitioning to a clean energy economy.
In order to tackle the full scope of this issue, we will need sustained action from our federal leaders as well. To serve all North Carolinians, Sen. Tillis and Sen. Burr must support bold action on climate, and that includes helping our state transition to a 100 percent clean energy economy. The very health of our communities is on the line.
If we’re to learn anything from those courageous activists in Warren County, it’s that meaningful change only occurs when we demand it. We already have the tools that we need to ensure a just and equitable future for our children and grandchildren, but honoring the legacy of those fighters who came before us means standing up and using them.
Dr. Marian Johnson-Thompson is a molecular virologist who has worked as a researcher, teacher and scientist at a number of academic institutions, both in the U.S. and abroad. She is the former Director of Education and Biomedical Research Development for the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and currently serves as a Professor Emerita of Biology and Environmental Sciences at the University of the District of Columbia. She is also an adjunct professor in the School of Public Health at UNC-Chapel Hill.