Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Of Climate Change, Racism, and Al Gore

Oiled Black-crowned Night-Heron
Climate change and protecting birds are inextricably linked. And so is racism.

Every Monday through Thursday morning, a newsletter appears in my inbox. Heated, by Emily Atkin, is a wonderful, well researched, informative, inspiring, and angry newsletter about climate change.   

Emily Atkin is an idealistic millennial, and as the mother of millennials, I know for certain that my boomer generation hasn’t done nearly enough to ensure a clean, safe world for our children and grandchildren. I do like to boast that we boomers were the college-age kids who put our hearts and souls into the first Earth Day, which ignited the writing and passage of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act, but those were all accomplished half a century ago, in the early 70s. After that, we effectively kicked back and focused on our 401-Ks. So I’m thrilled and newly inspired every time I read Emily Atkin’s newsletter.  

Unlike so many boomers, Al Gore, one of my real-life heroes, didn’t move on—he stayed focused on environmental issues, most famously and especially climate change. Millennials are justifiably mistrustful of him, as any boomer who ever said “Don’t trust anyone over 30” should understand. Emily Atkin has ridiculed Gore a few times, proclaiming that millennials don’t even know who he is, and on June 1, she called out a host of individuals and organizations who ostensibly focus on climate change but hadn’t made any statements about George Floyd’s death, including Al Gore. She argued that silence from prominent climate activists was inexcusable; that climate and environmental work must be aligned with the movement for Black lives. 

That very day, specifically in response to Atkin, Al Gore issued this statement:
We are way overdue in America for a reckoning that addresses the long-standing injustices borne by black, brown, and indigenous people. Entrenched, systemic racism in our country has led to disproportionate impacts of pollution on communities of color, along with disparities in income, education, healthcare, and more. Today, African Americans are suffering from COVID-19 more than any other race, in part because their much higher exposure to air pollution increases the mortality rate from the virus. We have a moral obligation to demand equality for all, regardless of race, creed, sexual orientation, or economic status. The need for climate action is bound together with the struggle for racial equality and liberation. I stand with the peaceful demonstrations across America calling for equal justice now. 
Emily Atkin interviewed Gore the next day, and he pointed out that although he had waited too long to issue this statement, he’s recognized how racial justice is part of environmental justice, and worked long and hard on it. He told Atkin:
I co-sponsored with John Lewis the first environmental justice law proposal back in 1991. At hearings on it, [environmental justice leader] Dr. Robert Bullard was the lead witness. Though it didn't pass, I was able to get put in place as an executive order by President Clinton when I became vice president. And I guess Trump and Steven Miller haven't found it yet, because it's still there.  
But we have a very robust presence on these issues. I had an extensive Climate Reality training in Atlanta that was really centered on coalition building. The invitation list was very heavy on civil rights groups and Black Lives Matter. And we have always included a very heavy part of our curriculum on the nexus between racism and climate. 
Atkin asked Gore about the online training in July that he’ll be providing for activists working on climate change. He said that there would be 
workshops, and breakout sessions, and everyone who attends the training will have an opportunity to go deep on these issues. The training is also about learning advocacy skills and engagement and communications skills, so people can learn how to be more effective in bringing about policy changes and building a very broad and deep grassroots movement.  
These issues are inextricably braided together. The climate issue and the voter suppression issue, for example, are the same issue. There’s a phrase that shows that up on the Internet quite a bit: “Here's one stupid trick.” Well, the one stupid trick that white supremacists have used for 150 years is to accentuate racial division in order to build support among lower-income, majority-white voters for a corporate agenda that actually hurts them. It does this by increasing the amount of pollution in their communities, keeping wages low, stripping workers in the gig economy of health benefits, family leave, child care, et cetera.   
So as this election in November approaches, the Climate Reality Project started organizing a voter registration drive. That campaign was also affected by COVID-19, but one of our early voter registration events was at Texas Southern, with Dr. Robert Bullard. And we had quite a number of events scheduled around the country focused on it. We’ll be rescheduling those, online or in-person, because this is going to be a turnout election. President Trump's supporters are hard core. They will turn out in November. So the turnout for his opponent has to be larger still. 
None of us can follow every single blog, newsletter, and organization that is working to solve these entrenched issues. But the organizations and individuals who do work on them shouldn't be in competition with one another. Coalitions, in which everyone who cares joins together to fight these battles, are the way to effect actual sea changes with regard to important issues. It's time for people who love birds to recognize how birds are hurt when we birders close our eyes to systemic racism, environmental justice, and climate change. As Ben Franklin once said, "We must hang together, or surely we shall hang separately."

Al Gore's upcoming workshop is free but requires registration and a commitment to attend the daily one-to-two hour sessions from July 18th through the 26th. 

You can read Heated, Emily Atkin’s important newsletter, without subscribing, but I strongly recommend not just subscribing, which is free, but getting the paid subscription to support this excellent reporter's fine work.