climate change

“Barack Obama might be the only Black person on the planet who cares about climate change” 

Days after the Obama Administration announced landmark initiatives concerning the emission of carbon dioxide, that statement is how Charles Ellison starts "Where's the Black Political Conversation on Climate Change". We applaud Mr. Ellison for approaching the issue and agree that his question has merit, but we respectfully seek to fill in some holes in the assertion that Blacks are not “in the mix” on climate change.

A 2004, Congressional Black Caucus Foundation report, "African Americans and Climate Change: An Unequal Burden," highlighted vulnerabilities of the African-American community to climate change. A study by The Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative in 2008 and a more recent report, "Facing the Climate Gap" reaffirm such findings. It is clear that African Americans have reason to be concerned, and there are numerous black voices sounding the alarm in science, policy, and at grass-roots arenas.

In 2010, President Obama honored Dr. Warren Washington with the nation’s highest science award, the National Medal of Science, for his pioneering work on climate models. Dr. Washington served as a key science advisor to the previous 5 U.S. presidents and chaired the National Science Board, which advises the highest levels of U.S. government.

The lead author of this article, Dr. Shepherd, became the only the 2nd Black President of the American Meteorological Society, the oldest, largest and most influential professional society in weather and climate, in 2013. He is routinely summoned to brief Congress and the White House. Dr. Shepherd appears regularly on CNN, Weather Channel, Face the Nation, NOVA, and other mainstream broadcast and print media.  Dr. Shepherd’s 2013 EBONY.com article highlighted vulnerabilities of the African-American community to climate change as does his Essay in the National Urban League’s 2014 State of Black America Report. You might also find Dr. Shepherd’s Tedx talk or his contribution to the American Association for the Advancement Science (AAAS) 2014 "What We Know" campaign accessible.

Dr. Robert Bullard, Father of the Environmental Justice movement, has long focused on environmental inequity issues. His books are required reading for anyone studying climate justice.  You might also be surprised to learn that Dr. Bullard (Texas Southern University) and Dr. Beverly Wright (Dillard University, Deep South Center for Environmental Justice) host an annual HBCU Climate Change Conference in New Orleans.

Current CNN Crossfire host Van Jones served as an environmental advisor to President Obama. Dr. Dawn Wright, Chief Scientist at ESRI and Oceanographer, is a member of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Science Advisory Board along with Dr. Shepherd. High profile black television meteorologists like Al Roker and Janice Huff were at the White House as the U.S. rolled out its National Climate Assessment report in 2014.  Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan environmental and political activist educated at the University of Pittsburgh, influenced the Green Belt Movement in Africa. Dr. Stewart Pickett (Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies) is an urban ecologist and the first Black president of the Ecological Society of America and Project Director of the Baltimore Ecosystem Study.

A younger generation of scholars has recently formed the National Science and Technology News Service. The organization, through various mechanisms, seeks to shatter perceptions that “Black scientists or science writers aren’t out there,” which is an underlying premise of the Ellison article. One of its members, Dr. Danielle Lee, has blogged extensively at her “Urban Scientist” site on environmental issues. Co-author Kellen Marshall (an ecologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago) has been diligent in communicating the impacts of climate change on urban Blacks through the URBAANE Conference in Chicago, Il.  The 2nd annual conference theme was “Suffering in Silence: Disaster Preparedness and Food Security in the Face of Climate Change.”

Having said all of that, Ellison is spot on with his assessment of the “discussion” in the Black community. Our community continues to “sleep on” this topic. In 2014, several headline-grabbing climate events occurred:  the release of the 5th IPCC report, the rollout of the U.S. National Climate Assessment, and President Obama’s EPA issuing landmark carbon regulations.

Some Black Americans may see this topic as being about polar bears.  Let us be clear, every single priority of the Black agenda is or can be linked to a changing climate; crime, health, jobs, income, education, and homes.

A recent Yale study indicates that African Americans have a disproportionately higher concern about climate change than other races.  And if that is not enough, noted Civil Rights Leader Reverend Gerald Durley argues that climate change is a civil rights issue.

We agree with Ellison’s underlying point that the Congressional Black Caucus, other stakeholders, and “our” media need to be more engaged (which is why we are grateful for this space at EBONY.com, which has addressed this topic from a few angles in recent years), but do not think it's reasonable at all to suggest that President Obama is the only Black person who cares...we know better than that.

Dr. Marshall Shepherd is the 2013 President of the American Meteorological Society and Director of the Atmospheric Sciences Program at the University of Georgia. He routinely is called upon by Congress, the White House, and major media outlets as an expert on weather and climate.

Kellen Marshall is a doctoral candidate and ecologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She was the first host of an environmental radio show, “Living Healthy, Living Green” on WVON 1690 and is the Director of Research for the GWC Research Station at Eden Place Nature Center.