Next up for national dialogue: Environmental justice

Young people are more ready than ever to address the disproportionate impact of pollution and climate change on Black Americans.

A protester wears a protective mask during a July 13 march for racial justice in Valley Stream, N.Y.

With Americans taking a fresh look at justice for minorities, they can now add some urgency to a related issue: the need for fresh air and water in low-income neighborhoods. On Wednesday, President Donald Trump weakened a law requiring public input for federal infrastructure projects, such as power plants and roads. The impact of his action on Black Americans, who constitute a high percentage of residents in U.S. cities with a host of environmental hazards ranging from climate-driven “heat islands” to polluted drinking water, could be high.

Mr. Trump’s action, however, is bound to run into stiff resistance from young people. That demographic group is concerned about environment issues “unlike any that I’ve seen on this earth in over 70 years,” says Robert Bullard, a professor at Texas Southern University who’s been called “The Father of Environmental Justice.” 

Also, cities are more serious than ever about solving local environmental problems. In Philadelphia, home to nearly 700,000 Black residents, the city has pledged to increase the tree canopy cover to at least 30%. Tree cover not only reduces temperatures, but also provides places for people to meet, increasing the sense of community. A recent study has suggested the move could save 400 lives each year. In the Edison-Eastlake neighborhood of Phoenix, America’s hottest big city, a plan there would repave sidewalks using materials that reflect sunlight and would erect shading structures over public places, such as bus stops. 

Issues of environmental justice are hardly new. The hazardous water quality in Flint, Michigan, where 56% of the residents are African Americans has received considerable attention in recent years. But lesser known are the brownfield contaminants in the largely African American Rubbertown district of Louisville, Kentucky, and the noxious air pollution near Baton Rouge and New Orleans caused by Louisiana’s petrochemical plants.

The U.S. needs a holistic approach to discussing and ending environmental injustice, says Dr. Bullard. As the national dialogue on race keeps widening beyond police reform, it will naturally challenge the disproportionate impact of pollution on the poorest people. Justice demands all communities be clean and green.

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