Climate Justice

Do you know the difference between a frontline community and a fenceline community? What about between climate change and global warming? And where does climate justice fit into the equation? These are some of the issues Heather McTeer Toney explores in her book Before the Streetlights Come On. Heather challenges African Americans and People of Color to face the urgency of climate change. She defines climate change as “the result of human activity causing the planet to warm faster than it should on its own.” She argues that we should see climate change through the lens of climate justice which makes sure “those who are hit first and worst by climate change are first in line for protection.”

Let me share two stories. While in St. Louis, I saw a news report about an elderly man whose air conditioning failed and the landlord wouldn’t repair it (because in Missouri, landlords aren’t responsible for tenants’ AC). The temperature in his apartment was 90 degrees! He’d experienced 2 heat strokes already this summer. It is a climate justice story. It is a story of a black elderly man, experiencing extreme weather, and suffering from it because he didn’t have the economic means to do something about it. In this instance, the non-profit Cool Down St. Louis, which provides help for the most vulnerable people, installed an AC unit in this man’s apartment.

The second story is about a woman living in a senior facility in Port Arthur Texas. Port Arthur is both a fenceline and frontline community. As a fenceline community, her home was near factories putting out pollutants and toxins. As a frontline community in the gulf region, Port Arthur is hit first and worst by hurricanes that are now made stronger and longer by climate change. Hurricane Katrina hit the area, and this woman was moved to a facility in Houston. The same storm was so ferocious, she had to be moved again to Oklahoma. When things finally calmed down, she was moved back to Port Arthur. By then, her mind, delicate from dementia, could not recover from being moved 3 times in 3 months. She became non-communicative and died soon after. She was my grandmother.

Despite the many issues affecting the Black community (Toney lists job security, food insecurity, gun violence, and the blatant racism faced daily by African Americans), climate change must be seen as a justice issue. The consequences of the earth’s temperature rising (global warming) strikes the Black community first and disproportionately. Toney writes, “Black people make up 13% of the US population but breathe 40% more dirty air than our white counterparts. . . Humanity is in the same storm, but we are not in the same boat. Some of us are sailing along in yachts, while others are bobbing along in rafts and row boats.” Many Black communities are both fenceline and frontline for the disasters of climate change.

The Presbytery of Chicago’s Creation and Justice Committee educates and encourages members and congregations to respond to climate change through a lens of justice. Through them the presbytery is supporting the upcoming Green Team Summit, October 8 – 11. You can learn more by clicking Faith In Place. Take the time to learn more about what you can do to help slow the rising heat of our warming planet. May we all become part of the solution to the global problem.

Rev. Craig Howard