“For me, that was such a distant thing that it was hard to connect that to my real life,” Manning said.
It wasn’t until her senior year that Manning started learning about the effects of climate change that disproportionately hurt black youth like her, including decreased air quality that worsens asthma and displacement caused by extreme weather.
“That really just drew me into the movement,” said Manning, a sophomore at the University of Georgia and state coordinator for Zero Hour, a climate activism group that centers youth of color.
Black and Hispanic teens express a greater sense of urgency around climate change than their white peers, a recent Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll found. Young activists like Manning want to shift conversations about the environment away from distant concerns like polar bears to climate justice, focusing on the disproportionate health and environmental consequences that black and brown communities experience.
“We are all experiencing the health impacts of climate change. It’s real, it’s happening now, and it’s affecting our health today,” said Natasha DeJarnett, a research coordinator at the National Environmental Health Association who has studied environmental health for about 12 years. “For black and brown communities, climate change acts as a threat multiplier, increasing the risk of adverse health outcomes.”
Climate change exacerbates air pollution by fueling more-frequent wildfires and increasing ground-level ozone. Because communities of color already experience higher exposure to air pollutants than their white counterparts, climate change could worsen the already disproportionately high risk of asthma hospitalization for black youth, DeJarnett said.
And as hurricanes become more powerful more quickly, the vulnerable communities they strike take longer to recover than wealthier neighborhoods. One year after Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas Gulf Coast in 2017, 41 percent of black residents said their lives were still somewhat or very disrupted, compared with 26 percent of white residents, according to a study from the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Episcopal Health Foundation.
“Communities that have resources are quickly able to recover and remediate issues, but when we see resources that are lacking, that’s when we see concerns,” DeJarnett said. “Impoverished communities and communities of color are more likely to be lacking those resources.”
But while black and brown communities are more at risk of suffering the negative effects of climate change, activists of color say the focus and faces of the environmental movement are overwhelmingly white, and that can be isolating.
“I'm almost always the first young person that is black in these spaces,” said Isra Hirsi, a 16-year-old activist from Minnesota. She said a statewide advocacy group that she joined about a year ago was rife with what she described as microaggressions from white activists toward people of color.
“I learned a lot about how climate activism isn’t meant for people like me,” Hirsi said. “They don’t have people like me, and in order to make spaces welcoming of black and brown voices, you have to create them yourself.”
Hirsi is now executive director of the U.S. Youth Climate Strike, the stateside organizer of the international movement. Her mother, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), began taking her to protests when she was 6, but Hirsi says her motives are very much her own.
“I’ve taken what I was taught as a kid, to be a changemaker, and fight for what I believe in,” she said.
Hirsi says her fight is to make climate justice central in the national conversation about climate change, to ensure that the voices of black and brown Americans whose health and homes are most at stake are heard.
“These conversations don’t happen because this movement is dominated by white voices, and you only focus on things like animals and trees and the oceans, which are all very, very important things, but ultimately, we have to talk about how people are dying because of the climate crisis,” Hirsi said. “These white individuals don't talk about that enough. They don't talk about it because they don't have to, and they don't see it in their own lives.”
For these climate activists, the issue can be personal. Vic Barrett, 20, and a student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said that his interest in activism started with the Black Lives Matter movement. While that movement focused on sudden violence against Americans of color, Barrett began thinking about the “slow violence” of climate change.
In Honduras, from where Barrett’s parents immigrated, environmentalists are often targets of violence, including Berta Cáceres, a winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize who was murdered in 2016.
“Knowing that Honduras is such a dangerous place to be, and knowing that people have been murdered there for doing the work that I’m doing here, motivates me more to keep fighting to do what I’m doing here because my people can’t in so many ways,” Barrett said.
In 2015, Barrett joined 20 other young people in a lawsuit against the U.S. government, arguing that it has violated their constitutional rights to a healthy climate system. As the lawsuit winds through the court system, Barrett continues to speak out on climate issues. Recently, he testified at a congressional hearing about climate justice alongside the Swedish activist Greta Thunberg.
Barrett said that the impact of the climate crisis among people in Honduras is already being felt, with droughts throughout the region driving migrants to flee their home countries for the U.S.-Mexico border.
“This is just the beginning of what we’re going to see in the world if we keep doing business as usual with the climate crisis,” Barrett said. “Climate refugees are going to be the largest group of refugees the world has ever seen.”
A 2018 report by the World Bank determined that, by 2050, climate change could force more than 143 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America to move within their countries. Similar effects are occurring in the United States: In 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast and displaced more than a million people. In 2017, an estimated 130,000 people, nearly 4 percent of Puerto Rico’s population, left the island in the aftermath of the storm.
Manning, the Georgia teen, said that not everyone can afford to pick up and leave areas that are going to be, or already are, impacted by climate change. That’s why, she says, action has to be taken now, so no one is left behind.
“When you’re coming from a community that doesn’t have access to those resources, which oftentimes are black and brown communities, you can’t buy your time,” Manning said. “You can’t afford to wait.”
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