In 1968, South Carolina State University witnessed the “Orangeburg Massacre” of black students during anti-segregation demonstrations. On Friday, it will host presidential candidates addressing the civil rights issue of our time: environmental justice.
That the first-ever Presidential Forum on Environmental Justice is happening, especially at this historic site, shows how far we’ve come on some issues of justice, and how far we have to go on others. The candidates Americans decide to vote for will help decide how quickly we make progress.
Here in the Carolinas, environmental justice isn’t just a theory. It’s what we see year after year, in repeated displays of the kind of severe weather scientists say will only get more common as the Earth heats up. Last year, Hurricane Florence — the wettest tropical cyclone the Carolinas have ever seen — flooded cities and interstates alike. We endured Hurricane Irma’s major storm surges and widespread power outages in 2017. The year before that, Hurricane Matthew displaced over 350,000 people in South Carolina alone. And the year before that, we weathered thousand-year rains and 500-year floods.
In between hurricanes and floods, our farm communities struggle with heat waves and drought. In our cities, rising temperatures and worsening air quality mean families suffer, from children with asthma to grandparents with heart disease.
As pollution and disease tied to burning fossil fuels get worse, studies show that low-income Americans and communities of color bear a disproportionate burden. African American children are twice as likely as white children to suffer from asthma and four times as likely to die from it. Black Americans are exposed to 38 percent more polluted air than white Americans, while nearly half of all Latinos in the U.S. live in counties with poor air quality.
So what is our government doing to help? Pulling our nation out of the Paris climate accords, denying that climate change is a problem, and doing its best to rescue old coal-fired power plants will not solve the problem. Too many of our politicians are pretending that we can keep burning outdated, dirty fuel sources without harming the Earth that God gave us and His people who call it home.
So environmental justice communities here in South Carolina and across the nation are eager to hear from real leaders — like the presidential candidates participating in Friday’s environmental justice forum — who take the future of our planet and our people seriously. We only wish all presidential candidates would join Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Tom Steyer, Marianne Williamson and the other candidates who plan to attend.
We will be listening for plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions, repair the damage done by climate change and boost communities’ resilience. We want to hear a vision for a just transition to 100% clean energy from which all Americans benefit — no matter their income, skin color or zip code.
As we build that future, we just can’t let lobbyists, utilities, corporations and all the other usual suspects gather like hogs at the trough. We must not leave it to them to decide what America’s energy future looks like. We must not leave it to them to decide whether or not our communities sink or swim as the oceans rise and the world heats up.
Instead, our communities — especially low-income neighborhoods and communities of color who have borne the brunt of pollution and disease from our outdated dirty energy system — must have a seat at the table. They can help craft solutions that don’t merely sound good in the boardroom, but that also work in real communities. After all, we’ve got a vested interest: Long after the campaign spotlight moves on, we will still be here, working for a healthy, sustainable, prosperous future.
Like so many of the issues underlying today’s turbulent politics in the run-up to the 2020 elections, environmental justice comes down to a fundamental choice. Will American voters stand up for what is just and equitable? Will they advocate policies that are good for all Americans, and not just the rich and influential ones? Or will they let money and power win the day?
As for the environmental justice communities of South Carolina and across the nation, we know where we stand. And we will vote accordingly.
The Rev. Leo Woodberry is pastor of Kingdom Living Temple in Florence, executive director of the New Alpha Community Development Corp. and a leader of the Justice First movement.