In honor of Coretta Scott King and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Black History Month, YWCA Greenwich and 47 community partners sponsored a powerful panel discussion entitled Climate Justice In Connecticut.
Four outstanding female leaders and experts in their fields educated us about the disproportionate impacts of climate change on communities of color and how Connecticut can take steps to not only promote climate justice, but also achieve climate justice through a more inclusive and equitable process.
Our guest moderator Denise Savageau, environmental consultant and longtime Director of Conservation for the Town of Greenwich, began with a variety of data demonstrating the impacts of climate change and where these impacts are felt the most. For example, the data predict an increase in extreme heat days from four to 48 by the year 2050, and those impacted the most will be communities of color in cities such as Bridgeport and Hartford.
Similarly, communities of color and other vulnerable communities in the state will be more vulnerable to flood events going forward. Nationally we know that 70% of Black Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant, while three out of every five Black Americans live in areas with uncontrolled waste sites.
Sharon Lewis, the Executive Director of the Connecticut Coalition for Environmental and Economic Justice, clarified the meaning of climate and environmental justice: when all share equally in the benefits and the burdens of climate change and environmental impacts, and when those most impacted lead the efforts to develop solutions.
For example, climate shifts and underinvestment in infrastructure have caused chronic sewage backups and home displacement for Lewis and her neighbors in Hartford, and there is “no urgency” in finding solutions or including those affected in developing solutions. “Race, not income, remains the primary indicator” for the siting of landfills, industrial facilities, and mass transportation, putting families of color in close proximity to burning facilities, waste disposal plants and highways. This correlation has been well documented by data and research, including two landmark studies published by the United Church of Christ that coined the term “environmental racism.”
Brenda Watson, the Executive Director of Operation Fuel explained that 30% of all carbon emissions come from our homes, and 30% of our housing stock is old and needs to be weatherized properly. As part of the Governor’s Council on Climate Change, she is working toward solutions that will remediate mold and other issues that need to be addressed in connection with weatherization.
For example, we should mobilize for these purposes in the same way that the state mobilized for residents in Eastern Connecticut with crumbling foundations. Brenda also explained that rising energy bills are even harder to pay when people, especially renters, are living in substandard housing where the heat escapes easily.
State residents pay between 30% and 50% of household income on energy, when spending 6% or less on energy is considered “affordable.” Energy justice needs to be addressed holistically, with an understanding of the reliance on energy for medical devices, the vulnerability to heat-related death and the impact of energy loss on food insecurity. Policy and regulatory work should acknowledge access to electricity as a basic right.
Ashley Stewart, the Manager of Community Engagement for the Connecticut Green Bank stressed the importance of listening to the most vulnerable, who are experiencing climate impacts first and before most. She highlighted that these impacts are first experienced before they become “a metric to be measured”. Our environmental justice communities “are our canaries in a coal mine, letting us know there are more impacts of climate change coming”. The Connecticut Green Bank is the first green bank in the country and is leading the state’s private investment in clean energy, and has recently expanded their scope to include environmental infrastructure.
The Connecticut Green Bank is also integrating the voices and experiences of those most impacted by climate change through thoughtfully designing solutions and creating pathways for those most impacted to participate in the new green economy. The Green Bank has led the nation in clean energy investment and is aiming to continue that investment in areas of land conservation, parks, waste, agriculture and water. Much is needed in our most marginalized and disadvantaged communities, as Ashley explained, including remediation of existing brownfields, urban stormwater infrastructure in surrounding neighborhoods, and more equitable ways for citizens to provide public comment to policymakers and regulators that help to shape their communities.
Together the undersigned urge the state to promote climate justice and end environmental racism with updated public policy, regulatory reform for private and public utilities, and inclusive infrastructure siting and planning going forward.
Thanks to Sharon Lewis, we ended this critically important conversation with a powerful quote from Benjamin Franklin: “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”
Sharon Lewis is the Executive Director, Connecticut Coalition for Economic and Environmental Justice. Ashley Stewart is the Manager of Community Relations, Connecticut Green Bank. Denise Savageau is an Environmental Consultant and Former Town of Greenwich Conservation Director. Brenda Watson is the Executive Director of Operation Fuel. Mary Lee Kiernan is President and CEO of the YWCA of Greenwich.