Advocacy From the Manger and Environmental Justice

Nativity scene. Ron and Joe/Shutterstock

This past Sunday, I had the opportunity to watch our children’s ministry present through play, song, and dance the story of the birth of Jesus Christ.

No matter how many times I have seen this story, it’s always amazing that this miracle that happened in a manger could have such a huge impact on the lives of so many. Jesus was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth, his parents did not have the best reputation, and he definitely wasn’t birthed in a fancy hospital. Instead, he was born where animals were kept — not the best conditions environmentally at all! Further, Jesus Christ became an advocate for the poor, for those that do not always have a voice, and for those that were suffering from terrible mistreatment, disease, and sickness.

I truly believe that Jesus’s focus on the “least of these” is a model for advocacy, especially for the environmental justice movement.

Environmental justice (EJ) can be defined as the social justice movement that seeks to address the disproportionate burdens of environmental pollution and exposures on low-income communities of color, indigenous, and Native American peoples. The movement is about making sure that all voices are a part of the political process. It’s about helping ensure justice is served for people burdened and sickened by the pollution in the air they breathe and the water they drink. And in this day and age, it’s about making sure the ‘least of these’ can tackle the additional environmental burdens that result from climate change and extreme weather events.  

Voices Go Unheard

This past June, the president and his administration presented a 3-pronged plan to address climate change. More specifically, they presented efforts to cut carbon pollution, plans to build a more resilient United States, and a vision of this nation as a leader in international efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Additionally, in November, the president presented an executive order that requires the federal government to “pursue new strategies to improve the Nation's preparedness and resilience.”  

After both announcements, WE ACT and members of the environmental justice community were hopeful about the president’s bold move to take administrative action on climate change in the midst of a dysfunctional Congress. However, after further investigation of the 21 pages of the President’s Climate Action Plan (CAP), and the eight sections of the executive order, we found that environmental justice was not addressed in either of these plans sufficiently. This is why we believe there is a huge “GAP in the CAP.”

While weather does not discriminate, climate change does. Climate change can increase the vulnerability as well as raise the risk factors for people in EJ communities. For example, the vulnerability to the extreme weather — in the form of heat waves, droughts, super storms, and flooding — can be more severe for these people due to social determinants of health (the economic and social conditions that influence the health of a community) and other individual-level factors (advanced age, chronically illnesses, lack of air conditioning in high-rise buildings, and social isolation). When these factors are aggregated, this differential exposure leads to differential health outcomes. There is no justice.

Justice in Advocacy

Thirty-three environmental justice organizations across the country are embarking on a campaign to Close the EJ Gap (#ClosetheEJGap). The Environmental Justice Leadership Forum on Climate Change is a diverse national coalition of community and faith-based organizations working on the front lines of climate change representing 19 different states across the U.S. Since 2008, the forum has been working to address environmental policies that disproportionately impact disadvantaged communities and improve the quality of life for all.

The goal of “Close the EJ Gap” campaign is to get the president and the administration’s attention. The needs of environmental justice communities are not addressed in the plan. These needs, as identified by the members of the forum, include rejecting false solutions to carbon mitigation, recognizing the cumulative impacts on communities of color, and building community resilience through economic development. There are many other additional requests in our formal response. More specifically, we in the forum want the Obama administration to do the following:

  • By the Spring of 2014, create an addendum to the President’s Climate Action Plan that integrates and thoughtfully addresses the environmental justice considerations under each of the three pillars of the CAP.
  • Engage the Environmental Justice Leadership Forum on Climate Change, as well as other environmental justice networks in the development of this addendum and to strengthen the implementation of the President’s Climate Action Plan.

Your Gift of Stewardship

So what can you do? If you agree that environmental justice should be written in as a part of the president’s current CAP, you might be interested in our Close the EJ Gap petition to the White House, which we started with a goal of 100,000 signatures by December 29, 2013. You can find out more on the EJ Leadership Forum’s website here . 

Let’s use this holiday season to remember the perfect model for ministry started in the manger. It is up to us as environmental stewards to make sure that all the voices from the “mangers” across our nation are heard by the White House so we can better protect, prepare and empower the lives of communities that continue to be touched by climate change.

Dr. Jalonne L. White-Newsome is the federal policy analyst at WEACT for Environmental Justice. 

Photo: Ron and Joe/Shutterstock

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