As studies increasingly tally the death toll from climate change, the recent deadlock over Senate voting rights legislation puts the United States at a crossroads.
The Republican Party that rolls back voter protections in states and blocks them on Capitol Hill — enabled by conservative Democrats — is the same party that blocks, weakens and guts environmental protections at every opportunity. This means that as long as voting rights are at stake, so is environmental justice.
Last year, a study by Harvard University and British researchers found that nearly 9 million people worldwide died in 2018 from inhaling fossil fuel pollution particles. This includes 350,000 premature deaths in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, Illinois, New Jersey and Wisconsin.
In another groundbreaking 2021 study published in The Lancet, nearly 70 researchers found that more than 5 million people a year die from extreme cold or heat, with heat deaths expected to rise. This includes 173,600 deaths per year in the United States
There was no racial evasion for these studies, but there is ample evidence that the people who need the right to vote the most also need environmental protection.
In New York City, black people make up 24% of the population but accounted for 49% of heat-related deaths from 2000 to 2012, according to city data. Chicago is 29.6% black, but during its historic 1995 heat wave, 49% of deaths were black. In California, ER visits for heat-related illnesses from 2005 to 2015 increased 27% for white victims, but rose 67%, 63%, and 53% among black, Latino, and Asian victims, respectively. .
In the South, the disproportionate proximity of people of color to coal ash dumps, refineries, oil and gas fracking sites and hyper-concentrated “cancer alleys” at petrochemical plants is well documented. In the predominantly black town of Reserve, Louisiana, chemical plants put residents at a cancer risk 50 times higher than the national average.
IIt should come as no surprise, then, that voters of color are also Green voters. In a 2020 poll from Yale University and George Mason University, 69% of Latinos and 57% of black people surveyed said they were “alarmed” about climate change. This compares to just 49% of white respondents.
The alarm is because black and Latino households disproportionately breathe in particulate pollution from our consumption of goods and services — caused disproportionately by white households. Black and Latino households are more likely to be in “gated communities,” a term used for neighborhoods in close proximity or literally adjoining industrial facilities and traffic corridors.
Blacks and other families of color are also more likely to live in neighborhoods that become life-threatening heat islands in the summer due to lack of shade from trees and less ability to afford air conditioning. Flood risk from climate change is expected to dramatically shift disproportionately to predominantly black census tracts, in a country where families of color are less able to access federal assistance.
Many of these environmental injustices, which lead to chronically compromised health, are tragically exposed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Two years into the pandemic, blacks, Latinos and Indigenous people are still twice as likely to die from an infection as a white person.
The Biden administration has promised to take action on environmental justice and last week Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan outlined several steps it is taking to achieve that goal, including $600,000 for air surveillance in America’s most infamous cancer alley in Louisiana. At best, it’s a small first step when there are 150 poisonous plants along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, with several census tracts having the highest cancer rates in the nation.
The odds of having state and federal agencies committed to eliminating disparities, repairing damage, and regulating future industrial pollution depend on the ability of those most affected to elect the most effective and representative government.
Between 2011 and 2012, with the clear goal of preventing the possible re-election of the nation’s first black president, 19 states passed 27 laws making it harder for people to vote, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Last year, after President Trump claimed a stolen election and encouraged the January 6 insurrection, the same number of states passed 34 laws restricting voters’ rights. The wickedness of the measures was symbolized by Georgia’s criminalization of the act of handing out water to voters in long lines.
Although 25 states also passed laws last year expanding voting rights, the Brennan Center for Justice said, “This expansive legislation does not offset the impact of restrictive laws…there is a sharp and growing divide in the country, where access to the right to vote increasingly depends on the state a voter resides in. This gap will only widen next year unless Congress acts.
With Republicans controlling the legislature in 30 states, that means any high voter turnout of color in much of the country is Democratic heroism. An example is the 2020 primary in my home state of Wisconsin, where Republicans demanded in-person voting, despite COVID-19 raging across the state. Milwaukee was hit so hard by the pandemic that there were only five polling places open, one at Marshall High School, my alma mater.
I was proud of the long lines at my old school. Even before all of this, I experienced how easily a voter could be disenfranchised by the sheer laziness of election officials. The weekend before the 2008 presidential election, my father was in a Veterans Administration hospital in Milwaukee suffering from a heart attack. Hooked up to IVs and monitors, he said he still wanted to vote. So I went downtown to the city elections office to get him a mail-in ballot. The clerk insisted the deadline had passed for him to get one, even for major health reasons.
I went back to the hospital and told this to my father in front of one of his nurses. The nurse has proven to be a patient advocate for various services, including elections. She said angrily that what I was told was nonsense to hospitalized veterans. She left the room and came back with a document that I had to take back downtown.
When I returned to the electoral commission, the same clerk saw me arrive, remembered me, and had words for me before I could open my mouth.
“I thought I told you you were too late,” she said.
I handed over the document: “Take this to your supervisor.”
I watched the clerk and her supervisor stutter for a few minutes before the clerk finally came back and handed me the ballot, without a word, without an apology.
I returned to the hospital with the ballot and saw my father’s hands – shaking from his trauma – marking the place of Barack Obama. I’ve learned forever that if it’s so difficult for a single black man to vote, even in one of the “bluest” cities in the United States, who knows what barriers will arise elsewhere?
We get this answer. While turnout in the 2020 presidential election has been historically high, aided by early voting and pandemic mail-in voting, significant racial gaps in turnout persist. The Brennan Center found that white turnout was 71%. The participation of blacks, Asians and Latinos was 63, 60 and 54% respectively. Overall, the turnout for people of color was 58%, 13 percentage points lower than that for white voters.
In a college basketball game, a final score of 71-58 would be decisive from every angle. The Brennan Center, citing several studies on voter ID laws, distance to polls and reduced early voting days, said: “There is ample evidence that the kinds of barriers introduced by Republicans this year disproportionately reduce turnout for voters of color.
This is happening precisely when young voters and voters of color are voting for environmental protection. The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University reported a sharp increase in turnout in 2020 among voters aged 18-29, with climate change in their mind. These voters played a crucial role in Biden’s victory on the battlegrounds of Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. While 78% of all voters ages 18-29 said they were concerned about climate change, 84% of younger voters of color said they were concerned.
Nathaniel Stinnett, head of the Environmental Voter Project, told ‘Living on Earth’ public radio that strong black turnout, with the environment as a priority, helped send Georgia’s first black and Jewish senators to Washington. in a special runoff in 2021. The project’s analysis of the election found that nearly 7,000 voters who expressed strong concerns about the environment voted in the runoff, even though they didn’t hadn’t voted in Trump’s monumental presidential defeat by Biden.
Stinnett said those voters care about the environment “because coal-fired power plants aren’t being put in white suburbs. They’re being put in communities of color.”
If there’s one good thing about this war on the franchise, it’s that legacy environmental groups are stepping into the fight after years of frequent criticism for pursuing conservation programs and gas-to-gas strategies. greenhouse effect that leave out communities facing fossil pollution. Last June, environmental and conservation organizations were among more than 200 groups calling for an end to the Senate filibuster.
The coalition called the filibuster, the rule that requires 60 votes in the 100-seat chamber to shut down debate and allow most laws to reach the ground, “a relic of the Jim Crow era. It has been designed and used for decades to thwart civil rights legislation, including blocking essential protections for the right to vote and anti-lynching legislation. It has also been used to stop legislation that would protect workers, to relax environmental safeguards and to stifle other legislative initiatives that have received broad support among the American people.
As Robert Bullard, professor of environmental policy at Texas Southern, told E&E News this month, “Our movement for environmental justice was born out of civil rights and the struggle for equal protection, the struggle and the right to vote and not be intimidated, and not be treated differently that way.” It is critical to the fate of democracy and the planet itself that the Senate sees it that way.