Environmental Racism and Health Disparities in the South Bronx

Photo courtesy Leah Kozak

“An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law” —Martin Luther King, Jr.

Last year on a crisp afternoon in March, I was one of nine people arrested by the NYPD and taken away to the local precinct for processing. My crime? Attempting to plant detoxifying sunflowers on public brownfield land on the South Bronx waterfront in New York City.

Earlier in the day, more than 100 residents, faith leaders, organizations, friends, and allies came together to protest the proposed relocation of the online grocer FreshDirect to a residential neighborhood in the South Bronx. After a jubilant and joyous interfaith reflection and prayer vigil outside the entrance to the waterfront location, security guards refused to let us cross the gate, so we sat in front of it in protest — a peaceful and non violent act of civil disobedience.

Our coalition, South Bronx Unite, works to improve and protect the social, environmental, and economic future of the South Bronx in New York City, located in the poorest congressional district in the country. For three years we have been fighting to stop FreshDirect from receiving more than $100 million in subsidies and incentives to build a diesel trucking distribution center on public land along the Bronx Kill Waterfront.

Fossil-Fuel Divestment: I Did It for My Soul

whiteisthecolor / Shutterstock.com

whiteisthecolor / Shutterstock.com

Editor's Note: In this latest edition of our “Disinvest/Reinvest” series, John Elwood reflects on how – and why – he divested from fossil fuels. You can sign up for the final week of our Christian Divestment e-course here.

Investments shape souls. Jesus tells us so.

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Matthew 6:21

Over the years, these words of Jesus have kept me away from the “merchants of death” and conflict minerals and steered me toward ethical products of many sorts. In recent years, however, a more sinister and pervasive threat has come into focus. Climate scientists in 2014 warned that energy companies like Exxon, Shell, PetroChina and Chevron – which derive their value from enormous reserves of recoverable fossil fuels – will have to leave about 80 percent of those precious reserves in the ground if the world is to have a chance of avoiding global climate mayhem.

That means that four out of every five barrels of oil, or tons of coal, or cubic feet of natural gas that these companies have discovered and developed must eventually be written off.

The market value of fossil fuel reserves today is valued at around $27 trillion, a sum that dwarfs the famous U.S. national debt. This means that there is a very, very bad day of reckoning ahead for someone. Either all of humanity will endure unspeakable suffering, or those who invest in the fossil-fuel companies will suffer huge losses.

It became clear to me that investing in fossil fuels is no longer a retirement strategy or a way of mitigating market risks. It is a decision whether to align my soul with unfathomable harm to virtually all of humanity and to all of God’s beloved creation. If I’ve got my own personal slice of those carbon reserves (whether by buying a share of ExxonMobil or by investing in a mutual fund that does), I make money, or avoid big losses, only if the entire creation groans and suffers under the weight of climate calamity.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Sanctity of All Life

akphotoc / Shutterstock.com

akphotoc / Shutterstock.com

Recently President Obama proposed giving wilderness status to 12 million acres of the Artic National Wildlife Refuge.

Many Republican senators, including Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, strongly oppose the president’s proposal. Much of the opposition is expressed as frustration and outrage that the president is hindering Alaskans from having control over their economic future. Sen. Murkowski asserts:

What’s coming is a stunning attack on our sovereignty and our ability to develop a strong economy that allows us, our children and our grandchildren to thrive. … It’s clear this administration does not care about us, and sees us as nothing but a territory. … I cannot understand why this administration is willing to negotiate with Iran, but not Alaska. But we will not be run over like this. We will fight back with every resource at our disposal.

The ANWR is home to significant untapped petroleum reserves that lie beneath the land the president is seeking to protect. This fight between protecting the ANWR and promoting economic growth and development through oil drilling is one that has been going on between Democrats and Republicans for years.

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker said in a statement he may be forced to accelerate oil and gas permitting on state lands to compensate for the new federal restrictions.

While I believe I understand the arguments made by advocates on both sides, it seems to me there is a fundamental ideological (and possibly theological) premise that often goes unacknowledged in these debates.

Divesting from Fossil Fuels: We're Putting Our Money Where Our Faith Is

Photo via Kokhanchikov / Shutterstock / RNS

Two working oil pumps are silhouetted against the sky. Photo via Kokhanchikov / Shutterstock / RNS

We’re a few weeks into 2015, which means many of us are striving to keep our New Year’s resolutions while others have already seen their best intentions collapse under the pressure of daily routines. Every year, we make promises to be better — we’ll go to the gym, save more money, slow down. But for Christians, every day is an opportunity to make resolutions. We call that repentance.

And this year — today — I am repenting of my dependence on fossil fuels.

While many associate repentance with sorrow or guilt, the biblical meaning of the word is to stop, turn around and go in a whole new direction. Repentance means changing our course and embarking on a new path.

For Christians, humanity’s failure to care for God’s creation warrants our repentance. This is not just a theological claim but a practical moral imperative when it comes to fossil fuel consumption. American Christians need to repent — and quickly!

Our society’s addiction to fossil fuels has had an unconscionable impact on the state of our Earth and on future generations. Coal-fired power plants are giving people cancer and asthma. Oil pipelines are spilling and destroying sacred lands. Natural gas fracking waste is leaking underground, threatening water sources. Through our consumption of coal, oil, and gas, we have enabled this toxic activity.

White House Says President Will Veto Next Keystone XL Bill

In November, when the Senate just barely failed to pass a bill approving TransCanada’s controversial Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) interrupted the debate that followed it to tell everyone that we hadn’t seen the last of Keystone XL. He vowed that a new bill authorizing the pipeline would be the first thing on President Obama’s desk in the next session of Congress.

Sen. McConnell is making good on that promise – with another upcoming vote, he says he has the 60 votes he’ll need to pass the pipeline, which the GOP has branded as a “jobs creation” bill with dubious claims about job numbers.

But White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest announced today that “If this bill passes this Congress the president, wouldn't sign it.” This promise of a veto may have less to do with the environmental implications of the pipeline, the violation of a treaty with American Indians, or the years of steady protest from vocal opponents, and more to do with giving the State Department time to finish their review process. Regardless, it’s another stalled start for the would-be Keystone XL pipeline.

The White House needs to hear from Christians who oppose the Keystone XL pipeline. Click here to send a tweet to President Obama!

Read more.

Frontline Dispatch from the War on Coal

Allen McDavid Stoddard / Shutterstock.com

Allen McDavid Stoddard / Shutterstock.com

Like sifted coal, the dust is settling after the recent election in the “War On Coal” zone in West Virginia and Kentucky. Ungloved fisted hands lifted high in victory, King Coal. Knocked out cold on the canvas, contenders misleadingly accused of having President Obama and his dreaded coal-killing EPA in their corner.

The campaign propaganda was drearily repetitive. The syllogistic script for Republicans, “My opponent is a Democrat. President Obama is a Democrat whose EPA is killing coal jobs. Therefore my opponent will kill your coal jobs.” Democrat candidates protested vigorously, “As top priority, we will fight to bring the EPA to its knees, and bring coal jobs back!”

It’s been decades since any semblance of a coal boom economy. Comparable coal tonnage is still coming out of Appalachian ground. Machines and explosives began replacing most of the miners in the 1950s. In recent years, Appalachian coal commerce has been facing competitive market realities of cheaper coal mined further west along with a natural gas surfeit. With thicker, accessible Appalachian coal veins long mined out, profitability can still be realized by shaving environmental and safety corners and restoring market demand. The Environmental Protection Agency stands in the way, or so mining communities are told.

I turn to the EPA website and read, “the mission of EPA is to protect human health and the environment.” The first listed EPA purpose is that “all Americans are protected from significant risks to human health and the environment where they live, learn and work.”

Keep the #LightForLima Alive: Interfaith Groups Hold Vigils for Lima Climate Negotiations

Photo by Kaeley McEvoy / Sojourners

#LightforLima vigil in Washington, D.C. Photo by Kaeley McEvoy / Sojourners

Sunday night, people of all faiths gathered across the world for interfaith prayer vigils for the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Lima. In 13 countries, participants in #LightForLima prayer gatherings joined together in solidarity for collective song and prayer in hope that the negotiators at the UNFCCC will make decisions that will preserve the state of the earth for future generations.

Organized by the international multi-faith organization OurVoices, groups in SydneyOttawaNew YorkLondon, and Washington, D.C., and elsewhere joined together to light up solar lamps and candles to share hope for successful negotiations in Lima. Desmond Tutu provided groups with this powerful prayer which was read at vigils across the globe last night:

Holy God, earth and air and water are your creation, and the web of life is yours.

Have mercy on us in the face of climate chaos.

Help us to be keepers of your Earth:

to simplify our lives,

to reduce our use of energy,

to share the resources you have given us,

to raise our voices for justice

and to bear the cost of change.

We kindle this “light for Lima” as we pray for the climate change negotiations in Lima, Peru.

Evangelicals Add Support for EPA Plan to Cut Coal Pollution

The Rev. Mitchell Hescox, pictured here with his family. Photo via Evangelical E

The Rev. Mitchell Hescox, pictured here with his family. Photo via Evangelical Environmental Network / RNS.

Evangelicals are teaming up with environmentalists to support the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan to substantially reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal-burning power plants.

The Rev. Mitchell Hescox, president and CEO of the Evangelical Environmental Network, submitted comments from more than 100,000 “pro-life Christians” who he said are concerned about children’s health problems that are linked to unclean air and water.

“From acid rain to mercury to carbon, the coal utility industry has never acted as a good neighbor and cleaned up their mess on their own,” Hescox told reporters on Dec. 1. “Instead of acting for the benefit of our children’s lives, they’ve internalized their profits while our kids (have) borne the cost in their brains, lungs and lives.”

Despite recent findings that almost four in 10 evangelicals remain skeptical about climate change, Hescox said the comments he provided to the Environmental Protection Agency reflect a belief that “climate change is the greatest moral challenge of our time.”

Keystone XL Fails in the Senate: What's Next?

 Rena Schild / Shutterstock.com

Scene from the Forward on Climate march Feb. 17, 2013 in Washington, D.C. Rena Schild / Shutterstock.com

Last night, the Senate voted on the Keystone XL pipeline — and with only 59 votes, the bill failed. (In the current political climate, it takes 60 votes to make a bill filibuster-proof so that it actually passes.)

Right after the announcement, things got loud on the Senate floor. Someone from the gallery broke out into song. Although the C-SPAN cameras didn’t show them, someone was singing loudly in the Dakota/Lakota language from the gallery up above. That someone was Greg Grey Cloud, a member of the Dakota/Lakota Nation from the Rosebud Sioux reservation.

See, in some ways, the Keystone pipeline is a symbol. If President Obama lets the pipeline pass, it shows us that he isn’t actually the president who cares the most about climate change — even if he makes major agreements on climate change pollution with China or releases the Clean Power Plan for the EPA. If he lets the Keystone XL tar sands pipe be built, he’ll be undoing so much good work, cancelling it out with a fuel even dirtier than oil.

Senate to Vote on Keystone Pipeline Tonight

Rena Schild / Shutterstock.com

Marchers in the Forward on Climate Rally, Feb. 17, 2013, in Washington D.C. Rena Schild / Shutterstock.com

Tonight at 6:00, the Senate is holding a vote on the Keystone XL pipeline. I’ve been so excited lately by all the good thing happening in Congress, but this just might spoil my mood.

Here’s what has happened lately: President Obama met with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and the two of them agreed on a climate pollution-curbing deal. It’s a move that many people never thought possible, and it means big things for international climate talks. Also big news in that arena is Obama’s recent commitment of $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund, making us one of very few prosperous nations willing to help the world’s poor and vulnerable countries grapple with the climate impacts they are already facing – stronger storms, droughts that ravage subsistence farmers, rising sea levels that displace island nations. When the U.S. delegates show up at the U.N. climate talks in Lima two weeks from now, people might actually be happy to see us!

This week is an exciting one on the national level too. This afternoon at the EPA, a group of faith representatives will hand over our thousands of comments from people of faith who support the Clean Power Plan (and want to see the rule implemented well in every state).

But just when things were looking up, enter Congress. Here’s the basic scene: