The most important thing Steven Craig Washington took to Paris for this year’s United Nations climate change conference (COP 21) is a declaration from Pleasantville, a predominantly Black neighborhood in one of America’s most toxic cities: Houston. Numerous studies of Pleasantville and other neighborhoods surrounded by Houston’s ship channel, refineries and other petrochemical facilities have found disproportionate rates of illnesses brought on by transportation and industrial sources including asthma, lymphoma and childhood leukemia. “The residents of Pleasantville asked me to bring these world leaders a message: This polluting of our communities is a violation of human rights and needs to stop,” said Washington, a Houston native, high school science teacher and a member of a Pleasantville emergency preparedness team.
Washington went to the gathering of about 50,000 people, including President Obama and leaders and activists from 195 countries, as part of a delegation of 50 teachers, students and community activists affiliated with the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Climate Change Consortium. When I talked to him on days four and five of the two-week conference, the group had met or planned to meet with elected officials, environmental activists and business leaders. Washington admitted that, before the conference, he wasn’t sure if there was actually a place for Pleasantville in Paris. “I thought I had to be an expert and was nervous,” he said. “But it didn’t take me long to realize that people relate to personal stories more than they do to acronyms and policy details.”
So, instead of leading with the statistical and geographic analyses he learned as an urban planning and environmental studies major, Washington engaged his fellow COP 21 attendees with stories that placed his community in the larger chain of environmental racism. “I told them about how I drive to work in Pleasantville and have to turn off the air conditioning so the fumes don’t get in my car,” he said. “Many people can relate to stories about people in our communities having higher rates of respiratory problems and cancer. We all understand how environmental racism and climate change connect us and how what’s killing us in our communities is also hurting the earth.”
It was clear, based on my discussions with dozens of activists, scholars, elected officials and tribal leaders, that many people of color attending COP 21 recognized how mostly non-White countries in the Global South that have the lowest carbon footprints are suffering the droughts, floods, rising sea levels, health disparities and destroyed ecosystems brought on by emissions from 90 companies that are mostly owned by Northern countries. I often heard how Northern countries such as France, China and the United States are responsible for more than two-thirds of all global carbon emissions. In other words, a small minority of humans are inflicting great catastrophe on the majority. By sharing their stories and analyses, people of color at the COP 21 (as well as concurrent convenings such as the International Rights of Mother Nature Tribunal and the People’s Climate Summit) amplified what many described as the issue of our time: a 21st century color line drawn by climate change.
Ironically, that color line was on full display in Paris, a city where you can still see traces of its ancient walls and borders that divided people along lines of class and color. Right outside of the heavily-fortified COP 21 compound in the suburb of Le Bourget, I immediately observed the segregation between Arab and North African communities and predominantly White—and less polluted—ones. Today’s border is the city’s two-to-six lane Boulevard Périphérique, which separates Paris proper from working-class suburbs that are simultaneously the most-polluted and -policed parts of the greater metropolitan area.
The International Rights of Mother Nature Tribunal, a gathering of indigenous and Western groups that seek to protect nature by ascribing rights to it, took place on day five of COP 21. Organizers said they hoped the Tribunal would become a permanent legal entity, much like the International Criminal Court of The Hague. After hearing from witnesses, experts and prosecutors, the Tribunal found a number of governments, corporations and multilateral organizations guilty of using COP 21 to continue and even expand crimes against nature. The United States, Exxon-Mobile and the United Nations were among those they found guilty.
Failures of COP 21 that I observed included the removal of language referring to the rights of indigenous peoples, migrants and women from the conference’s accord and the mainstream environmental movement’s failure to apply a race and global geography lens to climate-change stories.
Pablo Solon, a key Tribunal organizer and a former ambassador to the U.N. from Bolivia, called a frequent COP 21 talking point—”We’re all responsible for climate change”—intellectually dishonest. “I don’t agree with this concept of ‘Anthropocene,’ which says that all humans created this climate-change mess,” Solon told me at the Tribunal. “We should be talking instead about the ‘eliteocene’ or the ‘capitalocene’ or some other concept that highlights that a colonialist system is doing this, not the global majority.”
When I talked to Ruth Nyambura, a Kenya-based political ecologist with the African Biodiversity Network who sat on the Tribunal, she put the climate-change color line through a gender lens. “I respect DuBois’ work,” Nyambura told me, referring to W.E.B. DuBois’ classic declaration in “The Souls of Black Folk” that “the problem of the color line” would define the 20th century. “But there’s another critique, too: I’m a feminist and my readings of the color line and climate change are also informed by feminists of color like Audre Lorde, who said, ‘There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not live single-issue lives.’”
Nyambura also said that she sees a disparity between how media covers environmental disasters in the Global South and those in the North. “It’s all people of color being devastated, but the media doesn’t report it like it does when it hits the North. There’s an idea you find in the mainstream, White environmental movement that ‘population growth’ is responsible for climate change. That’s code for blaming Black, [Latino and Native] kids.”
Back at COP 21, I talked to Robert Bullard, a Texas Southern University dean who is widely recognized as the father of environmental justice. Underlying climate change, said Bullard, are the workings of what he calls an “apartheid system of global decision-making.”
Bullard, who led the HBCU delegation, has been doing environmental racism work since the late ’70s, when his lawyer wife “recruited” him to do research for a lawsuit she was fighting against Texas authorities. In the process, he began noticing how landfills and refineries were primarily located in Houston’s Black and Latino communities. He went on to publish 18 books and convene a series of gatherings that spread the environmental justice message from the American South to the rest of the country and beyond. Bullard has supported the establishment of environmental justice organizations in countries like Brazil, South Africa and Ecuador; his work is the touchstone for environmental and climate justice across the planet.
“The biggest reason for being here [at COP 21] is to start connecting all the dots of how environmental policies are made, who’s in room and why so few people of color and communities most impacted are sitting around the table talking about solutions and plans,” he said, adding that his strategy was to “link limiting carbon emissions to justice.”
Bullard was also vehement that racial disparities in transportation, zoning, health and waste disposal in local communities intensify global pollution. “Equity has to take center stage because people who have contributed the least to climate change and global warming are the ones that feel it first, worst and longest,” he explained. “So justice can’t just be a footnote. Justice has at be at the center of everything.”
Roberto Lovato is a writer and a visiting scholar at the Center for Latino Policy Research at U.C. Berkeley