Every year, it becomes more evident that Black communities in the U.S. are on the front lines of the climate crisis. Black communities, through decades of disinvestment and the residual effects of segregation, are at highest risk for flooding, most likely to be located next to polluting power plants, and least likely to retain housing and shelter in the face of climate disasters.
These inequalities presented themselves in many difficult ways this year. The water woes in Jackson, Mississippi, were made worse by a severe rainstorm, and Hurricane Ian disproportionately disrupted life in the Black neighborhoods of Fort Myers, Florida — not to mention the countless other invisible deaths at the hands of sustained pollution in Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, and Baltimore.
Still, the vigor of Black communities in combating climate injustices grew even stronger. At Capital B, we’ve spent the year covering some of these efforts and are highlighting a few of the victories Black communities have had in fighting the environmental and health impacts of climate change.
Blocking Fossil Fuels
Black communities from the Caribbean to the City of Angels won huge battles against oil industry leaders trying to set up shop in their backyards.
- St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands: Island residents successfully extended the temporary shut down of the Limetree Bay refinery, a massive facility known to dump poisonous fumes and oil droplets onto nearby homes. The refinery, which received its operating permit from the Trump administration, was first shuttered in May 2021, after island residents organized to show the facility’s harmful impacts on their health. In November, the closure was expanded after the Environmental Protection Agency ruled the facility needed a new permit before considering if the plant could re-open.
- St. James Parish, Louisiana: In the parish known as America’s Cancer Alley, residents blocked two petrochemical plants from opening in their community. More than 15,000 residents submitted public comments opposing the petrochemical projects, which were designed to create plastics and other chemical products. If they had been approved, the two plants, located in the majority Black county, would have emitted more pollution into the air than nearly four coal plants.
- Los Angeles: In December, the city that’s home to the country’s largest network of urban oil production approved a plan to phase out oil drilling. Across the country, urban oil wells are primarily found in Black and Latino communities and are connected to several respiratory and cardiovascular health ailments. The City Council’s decision to ban the long-standing practice follows more than 25 years of community organizing, including a decade-long campaign from the STAND L.A. coalition, a collection of seven Black and Latino-led environmental justice organizations.
A Focus on Environmental Justice
The federal government’s rhetoric around environmental justice has taken a significant step forward under the Biden Administration, and leadership has become more diverse.
- White House leadership: The Biden administration named Jalonne White-Newsome — a climate and racial justice advocate from Detroit — as the White House’s top environmental justice official in May. With White-Newsome’s appointment, the Council on Environmental Quality — the main engine driving environmental policy for the executive branch — is now led by two Black women for the first time.
- Legal oversight: That same month, the Justice Department created a new office solely dedicated to environmental justice, focusing on environmental laws and protections in communities bearing the brunt of environmental pollution and climate change. In the months since, all 93 U.S. attorneys have added focus on addressing environmental harm, as the White House Council on Environmental Quality has created a database identifying communities that require environmental protections.
Young Leaders Propel the Movement
Younger generations are feeling the urgency of climate change the most, and Capital B spoke to several young Black leaders this year at the forefront of the climate justice movement.
- Bryant Odega wanted to spend his life as a school teacher, but watching floods, wildfires, and droughts ravage the world around him forced a change of course. Odega’s climate anxiety drove him to run for a seat representing Los Angeles’ most climate-impacted council district. Although he lost the race, Odega remains active in the area’s climate justice organizing.
- Renard Monczunski, a transit justice organizer with Detroit People’s Platform, a community organization working to uplift economic and climate justice for Black residents, has spent the past few years organizing for climate and transit issues. Monczunski has advocated for more government investment in public transportation in Detroit and led campaigns to offer free transit fares for students as well as subsidized fares for Detroit’s low-income residents, to reverse a legacy of transit discrimination.
- T.J. Osborne, a 25-year-old climate policy adviser, has used his position to call out the Biden administration’s tendency to “overpromise and underdeliver” on climate policy. Based in the Washington, D.C., area, Osborne works to uplift the voices and work of young climate policy workers, while pushing to include Black Americans in the budding clean energy workforce.
The struggle for clean air and water and safe shelter in Black communities will continue in 2023, and Capital B will be there to cover the key issues. With natural gas production growing in the U.S. and contributing to environmental health crises, Black communities in New York, Baltimore, Arizona, and Texas are organizing to slow the process in favor of green energy solutions.
We’ll also be following the impact of major storms, which have evicted residents along the Gulf Coast and destroyed historic neighborhoods. This year, dozens of private home insurance companies in the hardest hit states — Louisiana and Florida — decided to pack up their bags and stop covering residents. Meanwhile, as these protections are dwindling, hundreds of thousands of Black folks are moving South to the “eye of the storm,” a reverse Great Migration that could make 2023 a pivotal year for housing justice organizing in the face of climate disasters.