The Common Good
February 2009

Green Justice

by Majora Carter | February 2009

How to fight poverty and global warming.

President Obama is walking into some large problems—including war, climate change, and poverty here and abroad—which he had very little to do with, but is still expected to fix. Climate change is one that some might suppose becomes less important during an economic downturn. In fact, the opposite is true: We can use this pivotal time to reduce our carbon emissions and our poverty emissions.

We can do this together and do it well, and the socio-economic benefits will ripple through all aspects of our civic responsibilities. This isn’t even about spending more money; it’s about spending the same amount of dollars in a more intelligent way.

I started the Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training program in 2003 to create a skilled green-collar workforce with both a personal and financial stake in environmental management. With each successive graduating class, more people come off welfare and clean the environment at the same time. Graduates learn green-roof installation, urban forestry skills, wetland and brownfield restoration, and important life skills that help them keep the jobs they get.

Communities like the South Bronx are everywhere. And it turns out that the same activities that cause global warming also negatively affect people’s health and quality of life—and cost a lot of money to support. Burning or extracting coal and oil and hauling waste and consumer goods with diesel trucks on congested roads cause problems for the people who live nearby.

We concentrate transport, waste, and energy infrastructure on top of poor people, who in turn use emergency rooms as primary care, which costs more while not improving their health. And we pay more for less successful educational outcomes, because the environmentally born health problems these community’s children have before they even show up for class—from contaminated drinking water downstream from Appalachian mountaintop removal sites to asthma in our inner cities—cause learning disabilities, according to researchers at Columbia University. (A child’s brain is connected to those asthmatic lungs, after all.) And statistically, we know that poor kids who do poorly in school often go to jail. Then we pay to lock them up, to support the families left behind, and for more law enforcement.

AND THAT’S just part of a dirty global energy system that oppresses people in the U.S. and elsewhere. We created historic laws here to respect both the dignity of the working classes and the beauty of creation—but manufacturing has moved to China, where labor and environmental protections don’t exist, effectively selling those rights away for cheap goods that are soon discarded. We should love the Chinese people as our brothers and sisters, but every dollar we send there now supports environmental and social injustice.

Our global climate is a shared one. In this country, our African-American and Latino men too often go to jail because of lack of work and poor local environmental conditions. We can connect those two problems and uncover the keys to more powerful solutions.

There are projects that are already on the ground or that can be started locally across the U.S. right now. For example, we can rebuild the electrical grid, which is currently a hodgepodge of uncoordinated local systems. The real difficulty with renewable energy is not tax credits; it’s always sunny or windy somewhere, but those places have to be connected to electricity demand centers. Building a national grid will produce jobs in the short term—and the creative power it will unleash as economically depressed or environmentally ravaged areas realize their energy-generating potential will unfold over many fruitful decades.

Another solution is horticultural infrastructure in our cities, suburbs, and countryside. A massive strategic deployment of trees and other plants can cool our urban zones and manage storm water runoff before it gets into costly sewage treatment systems—both of which can dramatically reduce overall energy demand and thus CO2 emissions. And on our coasts, where climate change is already bringing higher temperatures and more intense storms, storm surges can be largely absorbed by restored and healthy wetlands—“horizontal levees.” These valuable environmental services will also clean the air and sequester CO2.

Let’s stop building monuments to our collective failures and start designing the tributes to hope and possibility that we can all be proud of. Losing polar bears to climate change is tragic, but the slow death sentences handed out to our fellow citizens for decades are an inexcusable moral and economic debt we must begin to repay now.

Majora Carter is president of the Majora Carter Group, LLC, and founder of Sustainable South Bronx.

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