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The destruction left by Superstorm Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico left thousands without medical help, food, water and electricity – for years.

By Ramona du Houx

In this time of crisis, thousands of public servants who are part of a group called the Elected Officials to Protect America (EOPA) are mobilized to serve and protect this country by insisting on true justice. EOPA believes that the long and despicable history of environmental racism perpetuated by America’s reliance on fossil fuels must end, thereby alleviating the devastating burdens which fall most heavily on communities of color.  

From the heart of the city to the suburbs and rural communities, protesters have risen up against the systemic racism made painfully clear by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others. But even the very air they breathe as they march in the streets is unequal  Black communities across the nation are exposed to nearly twice the harmful air pollution as their White counterparts, yet they consume less of the goods responsible for its creation.  

This long-ignored injustice was already lethal, but since new research has linked air pollution exposure to higher coronavirus death rates, addressing it simply cannot wait any longer.

“The bottom line is this: if we want to bring about real change, then the choice isn’t between protest and politics. We have to do both. We have to mobilize to raise awareness, and we have to organize and cast our ballots to make sure that we elect candidates who will act on reform,” said President Barack Obama in a statement after the Floyd murder.

People of color are more likely to live next to unplugged oil wells, like the ones currently leaking methane. This blatant endangerment of their health, from Kentucky to California, has to end. Research from the New School shows that approximately eight out of ten waste incinerators are located in lower-income communities of color. Black children struggle with asthma at far higher rates, often receive inadequate treatment, and are three times more likely to die from it.

“Environmental injustices go hand in hand with the blatant disregard for minorities,” said New York Assistant Speaker Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, EOPA Council Member and veteran. “While my constituents value their communities, they are tired of being continually devalued by having to live in areas where air pollution is higher, causing lifelong health conditions, and in too many cases death. Fossil fuels are the root cause of at least  4,000 deaths and $33 billion in health costs annually in New York. It’s time we took meaningful legislative action to right these wrongs.”

Evidence clearly shows that our fossil fuel economy worsens climate change and abuses communities of color. It’s devastating. Just this week, a study in the Journal of American Medical Associates linked climate change to heightened risks in pregnancy, especially among Black mothers. This finding is especially devastating since Black women are already 2-3 times more likely to die of complications related to childbirth than white women. Tragically, this statistic is not surprising, driven by systemic racial factors in our healthcare system including lack of access to care, medical bias, and environmentally-caused chronic diseases such as asthma. 

As weather grows warmer across the nation, in urban minority and low-income neighborhoods, a lack of greenspace and tree cover drives temperatures up to dangerous levels in the summertime. The impact of these ‘heat islands’ coupled with disproportionate exposure to air pollution increase the odds of complications such as underweight and premature births.

“Black moms matter,” said Bruce Bekkar, coauthor of the report and a board member with EOPA’s partner, the Climate Action Campaign. A failure to act on climate change is a failure to protect our children and mothers, our present and our future. It is another way in which American institutions are fundamentally failing Black communities across the nation.  

COVID-19 has ravaged communities of color. According to the APM Research Lab, the mortality rate in Black communities has been at least  2.3 times greater than in white communities. “If they had died of COVID-19 at the same rate as White Americans,” the report states, “at least 14,400 Black Americans, 1,200 Latino Americans and 200 Indigenous Americans would still be alive.”

On June 17th, top figures from the World Wildlife Fund, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, and the World Health Organization insisted on a “just, healthy, and green recovery”, warning of the cost inherent if we fail to rebuild a more sustainable world. As climate change devastates habitats, wears down ecosystem resilience, and raises global temperatures, scientists warn that the occurrence rate of infectious diseases will increase. Just as COVID-19 did, more frequent pandemics will exacerbate existing inequalities. 

Without bold action on climate change, disease and extreme weather events will worsen, and disaster recovery efforts differ vastly for different communities. 

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, a 2018 survey uncovered racial discrimination embedded in the FEMA aid process. Likewise, race had a decisive and devastating role in Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Redlining had long concentrated black communities in low-lying floodplains putting their homes, lives and livelihoods most at risk to the devastation caused by yearly hurricanes. Then, in the storm’s aftermath, many people of color were shut out from recovery efforts, loans, and bailouts, forcing out many members of New Orleans’ previously prolific Black middle class. Of the 175,000 Black residents who fled the storm, 75,000 never came back. 

In Puerto Rico, the devastation of Hurricane Maria was amplified by the sluggish US response and the island’s existing pollution burdens. Scholars call these ‘unnatural disasters’ because they aren’t simply random weather patterns. They’re events shaped by history, both the history of anthropogenic climate change and the history of systemic racism.

The Government of Puerto Rico revised Maria’s official death toll from its initial 64 to 2,975 because of the prolonged and bungled recovery that left millions vulnerable in the Hurricane’s aftermath. 

“It infuriates me knowing some of those souls might be alive today if the federal government had acted in a humane way taking immediate action. It’s racism. Two years after, many people were still without water, and electricity,” said NY Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, EOPA Council Member. “This is personal, I’ve friends and family there and even though I’ve visited with aid, I feel powerless. It won’t start to be right until every Puerto Rican has the power to vote for President.” 

Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens who overwhelmingly serve in our military but are denied the right to vote in Presidential elections. The island is poorer than any state in the union, and remains in a recession. When COVID-19 hit the island, the public agencies in charge of confronting the emergency had already been financially crippled. Now cases are skyrocketing. 

In the face of environmental injustice, and the myriad threats to the health, safety, and humanity of communities of color, bold action now is the only way forward. It’s our moral obligation. Climate justice and racial justice are inextricably linked.  

As EOPA Californian Steering Committee Member and San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon said, “Governor Newsom recently spoke forcefully about the need to fight systemic racism in California. It is time for him to turn those words into action. Over 5 million Californians live less than a mile from an active oil well and many suffer from chronic asthma, lung disease, and cancer. More than 12,000 Californians die from the oil industry’s air pollution annually. Enough is enough. This is no way to power our society. We must value life over corporate gains. The public’s health and safety should be what guides political decisions, not the oil industry’s bottom line.”

Since 2012, EOPA has been fighting on behalf of all Americans to put an end to the country’s reckless reliance on fossil fuels and to hold the industry accountable for the harm it has done—harm felt most acutely by communities of color.

“In banning fracking in New York State, protecting our public lands by pressuring Congress reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and working towards a moratorium on new drilling permits in California, our elected officials have joined together as peers to provide the courageous, principled leadership necessary to make lasting change,” said Former Maine State Rep. Alexander Cornell du Houx, EOPA President. “In this time of triple crisis — racial injustice, a pandemic, and the climate crisis — we must rise to the occasion and demand a better and more just future. EOPA will continue towards that goal in all our actions.”

The mission of EOPA as per their website: To create a safe, prosperous, and healthy planet, we empower leadership from elected officials and civic leaders to protect our environment, and fight the climate crisis. As current and former elected officials who care deeply about protecting our planet and people from the dangers of climate change, EOPA educates through value-based storytelling, trains lawmakers, and connects elected officials to inspire strong environmental policy. Lawmakers who are veterans and elected officials lead our mission.