The Planet and Prince George's: Climate Change and Justice, Macro and Micro

Two meetings in Prince George's on climate change and environmental justice show the different scales and concerns that center on the planet's future.

/By Woody Woodruff/ Just five days apart, Prince George’s County activists gathered in a locavore mid-county restaurant to begin organizing around environmental justice and the racial divides it can highlight, while days later one of the county’s biggest employers, the University of Maryland, opulently hosted an international conclave called Climate Action 2016 that attacked the same looming problem but was heavy on the academic perspective and appearances by political figures.

Though they tackled the same paramount issue – climate change, its effects and mitigation – and took place in the same county, there were remarkable differences of perspective that highlighted the need to keep justice and injustice on the front burner of this discussion.

Dr. Sacoby Wilson, who leads the Center for Environmental Justice in the university’s Department of Public Health, emceed the diverse Environmental Justice gathering Saturday, April 30 at the Everlasting Life restaurant in Hampton Mall on Central Avenue. Wilson, a Prince George’s resident, kicked off a passionate discussion of power and decision-making at the state and county level and the need to organize to “inpower, not empower” minority communities to get a place at the table for environmental decisions.

Wilson said that organizing for a legislative agenda on environmental justice at the county and state level was imperative, an area where there’s a shortfall now. To accent the importance of organizing at the micro level he referenced Destiny Watford, a young Baltimore woman who won the Goldman Prize for environmental activism when she organized her community to stop the Curtis Bay incinerator project.

  At the UM conference the following Wednesday, May 4, fellow members of Wilson’s Public Health department team-taught a session in the university’s Stamp Union on Climate Change Resilience and Adaptation that put significant focus on poor and minority communities and the impact of climate change on disease and nutrition. Many of the nearly one dozen presentations packed into 70 minutes touched on improving communication with those communities to ease distrust of information that’s coming from outside, but grassroots organizing was not on the menu. Nor was their colleague Dr. Wilson.

A panel moderated by EPA administrator Mustafa Ali at the Everlasting Life get-together included Patuxent Riverkeeper Fred Tutman, Clean Water Action national board member Vernice Miller-Travis of Bowie, activist and consultant Robin Lewis and south county activist Ethel Shepherd-Powell. Everlasting Life commands a wide storefront in the slightly downmarket Hampton Mall, just inside the Beltway and still struggling to recover from the Great Recession. And much of the discussion revolved around the disparate impacts of environmental decisions made by officials and corporations on different income levels and minority communities. The scale of power relations – big companies against small communities – stayed at the top of the agenda at the restaurant meeting.

As the UM event heard calls for activism from politicians like the state’s Sen. Ben Cardin and former Gov. Martin O’Malley, the Everlasting Life gathering heard that minority communities had to organize themselves against environmental injustice imposed from power centers outside. Miller-Travis acknowledged that poor minority communities were hardest hit by adverse decisions like the siting of high-polluting incinerators, but that “Environmental racism is not about poverty – it’s about imposing environmental impacts on people of color. Studies show that race is an indicator of disparate environmental impacts independent of income.”

At the academically grounded sessions of the UM conference, advocacy was as usual muted by the rules of evidence and peer-review environment of scholarly work. Still, most of the findings at the public health session or at an afternoon session on “Climate Change, Poverty and Vulnerability” – disparate impacts, especially in the developing world; disparate funding of remedies – had clear implications for policy in an era when politicians resort first to austerity and cost-cutting that generally hits the powerless hardest. One health assessment showed the effects of more hot weather and longer hot seasons in Baltimore – more mosquito-borne diseases, dirtier air and more asthma among vulnerable, poor communities. In terms of windows for improving communication, researcher Cliff Mitchell said, most people want to see climate change mitigated for health reasons.

The political figures at the UM conference urged action but were upbeat by comparison with the sober assessments of the academics. The one-day scholarfest was a prelude to a two-day international summit in downtown DC gathering representatives of the 175 nations that signed the Paris agreement.

O’Malley told the UM conference, "All across the country when I would say, 'Climate change is the greatest business opportunity to come to the United States in a hundred years,' people would applaud… The key to that is rather than wrapping this issue in the framework of less than, we need to tell the narrative that it's going to be a future with more: more prosperity, more health, more opportunity."

Fred Tutman, bluntly and conversely, said at the Everlasting Life gathering that the incentives of capitalism were at the core of the disparities. … “Some forget,” he said, “that capitalism is disenfranchising communities because we are not disturbing the underlying social dynamic” and that means that typical environmental activism is “for some but not all” – the top class has a “different lens, the lens of privilege” that focuses on recreational uses of the environment. The real work is in the “worst possible places… with the most imbedded and intractable problems.” We have to change the “sensibility and values of the existing environmental movement.” Miller-Travis observed that “we have to attack racism by acknowledging racism in the [environmental] movement.”

 Miller-Travis added that organizing in the county was imperative because county officials were bent on tax revenue-producing development with no regard for its impact. Though she excoriated the county’s minority-majority political culture as “black people with no vision” she didn’t excuse the attitude of the outside-the-beltway middle class and its “accumulation of stuff” that is bogging down the sustainability of life in the county and “driving this development” with its lifestyle. She noted the county’s inferiority complex, which pushes superficially for “what the other counties have … all we want is a Nordstrom’s” The result, she said, is “rapacious development.”

Tutman, the Riverkeeper, added that all the streams in the county are in the “Red Zone” for water quality due to “embracing every form of development.” The county’s storm water management, especially of sewage overflows, is inadequate, he said, and it doesn’t collect consistent data on water quality after storm events. He was echoed days later by Amy Sapkota, a professor in the UM Public Health department, who outlined a looming national water crisis for agriculture and human use, noting that using “nontraditional” forms of water like processed sewage for agricultural may become prevalent.

At Everlasting Life, the minority community’s lack of access to decisions before they are made and handed down was a major theme. Robin Lewis noted that officials often “took the path of least resistance” in bypassing input from the most vulnerable communities, part of a spirited discussion of Prince George’s recent, and abrupt, announcement that trash pickup would be cut back from twice a week to once. Shepherd-Powell described disruptive effects in her neighborhood and declared that grassroots community members need to get in on decisions before they are made, rather than having them dictated. Lewis concurred: “We have to be in on the vetting” of questionable projects like a possible waste-to-energy incinerator in Prince George’s. Tutman observed that “one of the features of capitalism is that monopolies depend on reducing choices.”

Better information flow and environmental literacy were major themes of both meetings, an area where there was agreement among activists and academics. Climate resilience depends on better information, as Prof. Paul Leisnham of the UM Agriculture and Natural Resources department told the health workshop – “we need to improve information to vulnerable communities.” Tutman, at the Everlasting Life gathering, declared lack of environmental literacy in the county was one reason so few addressed questions of human and ecosystem health arising from development practices. Because of that, “corporate criminals” from the coal and coal waste sector are able to claim ignorance of the harmful effects of their own methods when taken to court.

Here the sentiment was echoed at the College Park conference by former Colorado Sen. Tim Wirth, a longtime internationalist warrior against the carbon-based economy, who referenced the “fossil fuel industry buying political outcomes” to stall efforts against climate change. With the university’s president Wallace Loh in the front row, Wirth urged the students in the audience to agitate for the university endowment’s divestment from fossil fuel stocks (Loh has resisted divestment despite strong student sentiment).

For both groups of conferees, the mistrust and lack of information in the most impacted communities was a focus, as was the concern that attempts to solve the problems brought more problems in their wake because of different levels of power, wealth and advantage in the world as it is. A constant problem, O’Malley told the UM audience, is “a lack of trust in one another.”

Even ostensibly pro-environment practices like transit-oriented development have downsides for the most vulnerable, said Miller-Travis, who was an original drafter and signatory of the 17 principles of environmental justice adopted at the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Conference in 1991. Gentrification and the exclusion of low-income workers follow such redevelopment, she said, so those workers face long commutes to get to scarce jobs.

These issues, the Everlasting Life gathering concluded, required organizing. Tutman proposed a standing county Environmental Justice Commission to report regularly to the county executive and council, and Sacoby Wilson suggested a concurrent county environmental justice action board because “No politicians go to politician school” so it’s important for grassroots citizens to school them.

Tutman added that at the state level, officials need to watch who the subsidies [benefits] of legislation and agency action are going to, a sector rife with business influence. Miller-Travis observed that state agencies were “unbelievably non-diverse” and were not carrying out responsibility under Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act to seek a diverse workforce.

The economic transformation that O’Malley had touted to the UM conference came up only peripherally at the Everlasting Life gathering, Lewis mentioning “green jobs” as part of the array of issues to be tackled at county level. Mustafa Ali said that the EPA would host major events on “Just Transition” practices to be sure that workers in existing, often polluting industries and jobs would not get left behind when a renewable energy regime began to take shape.

The UM conference was a prelude to a bigger event the following days in Washington, D.C. involving all the nations that signed off on the Paris agreement in late 2015, and looked forward to putting the agreements of that landmark event in practice and building an international movement to maintain momentum. At Everlasting Life restaurant, participants exchanged news of further activist events and resolved to build a movement for resilience and justice in the environmental groups and the larger communities in Prince George’s and Maryland. The effects of climate change, established well beyond the reach of doubters, still have macro- and micro- dimensions that put justice at the forefront of concerns and demand much from activists at every level.