Today is MLK Day. On this occasion we celebrate the life of one of the greatest people ever to walk on American soil. Decades after his murder, Martin Luther King continues to breathe life into a new civil rights movement that includes efforts to combat prejudice alongside support for equal access to the basic necessities of life like clean air and clean water.
We have a long way to go before we realize Dr. King’s dream. To start with in 2019 those who champion racial equality in the US have to contend with a commander-and-chief who has been accused of being racist. This view is not only informed by the Charlottesville incident where he appeared to be sympathetic to white nationalists. As reported by USA Today there have been at least 10 occasions when this president has been accused of racism.
Trump has also decimated environmental protections that disproportionately affect African American communities. He has systematically dismantled Obama era measures designed to
protect both the environment and human health. Trump signed a regulation
killing EO and he has adopted an insane energy agenda that is bad for both air and water.
Trump’s pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was the fossil fuel lobbyist Scott Pruitt. He lied about his decision to overturn Obama’s signature Clean Power
Plan and he killed regulations preventing the dumping of coal ash into America’s waterways. Although he was forced to resign in disgrace, Pruitt’s destructive legacy will endure due in part to his war against science. He will live in infamy for a murderous legacy that jettisoned dozens of environmental protections.
A March 2018 Quartz article reports that Black Americans are three times more likely to die from environmental pollution:
a touch of irony, the EPA celebrated Black History Month by publishing a
report that finds black communities face dangerously high levels of
pollution. African Americans are more likely to live near landfills and
industrial plants that pollute water and air and erode quality of life.
Because of this, more than half of the 9 million people living near
hazardous waste sites are people of color, and black Americans are three
times more likely to die from exposure to air pollutants than their
The statistics provide evidence for what advocates call environmental
In fairness it is important to concede that although the problem has worsened of late, it predates Trump. The much publicized
water issues in Flint Michigan are a form of environmental racism. It
is no coincidence that Flint Michigan has a predominantly African
American population (60%) Despite the national attention paid to the
issue of clean water people in many parts of the
country still do not have access to safe drinking water. As
explained in a CityLab article, black people are far more likely to lack access to clean water than white people.
Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, the chief executive officer of Green For All has repeatedly called environmental issues civil rights issues. As reviewed in the Guardian, six years ago she explained that Hurricane Katrina highlighted the injustice and inequality in America.
“Climate change isn’t just an environmental issue; it’s about keeping
our communities safe. It’s a matter of justice. Because when it comes to
disasters — from extreme temperatures to storms like Katrina — people
of color are consistently hit first and worst,” Ellis-Lamkins said. “African-Americans living in L.A. are more than twice as likely to die in a heat wave as other residents in the city.”
People of color are far more likely to suffer from pollution. Ellis-Lamkins said that 68 percent of African-Americans live within 30 miles of a toxic coal plant and one out of six black kids suffers from asthma, compared to one in 10 nationwide.”
She said that efforts to combat climate change are part of Martin Luther King’s famous 1963, I have a dream speech. “This is Dr. King’s dream reborn. And fighting climate change helps get us there” she said. “We need to respond to climate change today to ensure safe, healthy, prosperous lives for our kids tomorrow.”
The NAACP joined Green for All in calling for protections from coal pollution because they understand that this is about human health.
“The solutions to climate change won’t just make us safer and healthier — they are one of the best chances we’ve had in a long time to cultivate economic justice in our communities. Clean energy, green infrastructure, and sustainable industries are already creating jobs and opportunity,” Ellis-Lamkins said.
Creating employment and improving the environment are fundamental human rights issues. That is why Ellis-Lamkins implores us to add climate change to the list of what civil rights stand for.
The UN Connects Human Rights and Climate Change
World Bank on Human Rights and Climate Change
What is Environmental Migration and Who are Climate Refugees
Climate Change Exacerbates Social Tensions and Causes Conflict
Sustainable Development Goals to Follow Millennium Development Goals