Rev. Dr. Gerald Durley, retired pastor of Atlanta's historic Providence Missionary Baptist Church, at the Episcopal Media Center Benefit, 13 March 2007. Photo: Day1 blog

By Rekha Basu
9 January 2016

(Des Moines Register) – One advantage of having presidential candidates come to campaign every four years is hearing from the advocacy groups that trail them in hopes of rallying support for their causes. Those might be issues we know about, like gun control, immigration or criminal justice reform, but with angles we hadn’t considered.

It’s that way with climate change. Concern about it used to be seen as the province not of social-justice activists but of white, upper-middle class folks who could afford to prioritize long-range problems over immediately pressing ones, like poverty. Those of us with minimal science training also lacked the vocabulary even to talk about it.

But that’s changing as fast as the temperature, now hovering in the 60s in the northern U.S. New voices are joining the call. Last week brought a long-time civil rights leader to Iowa to urge action. The Rev. Gerald Durley, a retired pastor of the Providence Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta, who is African-American, has spent the better part of his life fighting poverty and racism. He worked with Martin Luther King Jr. and later with the Black Panthers. He has come to see climate change as a civil rights issue.

That happened, he said, after witnessing the disproportionate impact of extreme weather events, floods, droughts, and hurricanes on low-income and minority communities. “When your children suffer from asthma and cannot go outside to play, as is the case for many in Atlanta, it is a civil rights issue,” Durley wrote in a Huffington Post piece. “When unprecedented weather disasters devastate the poorest neighborhoods in places like New Orleans, New Jersey, and New York, it is a civil rights issue.”

Child asthma rates, for example, have multiplied in some poor communities, where homes are less protected against damp indoor conditions. Seven children Durley knew died of asthma. “I did so many funerals,” he said.

The potential health consequences of climate change are outlined in a sobering 2014 National Climate Assessment Report produced by The U.S. Global Change Research Program. The report attributes dramatic increases in deaths in some major U.S. cities to heat waves causing strokes, cardiovascular, respiratory and kidney diseases. It predicts these will increase, and especially harm children and older adults. Poor people are at greater risk of diminished lung functioning from smog and air pollution resulting from ground level ozone concentrations that can be kicked up by wild fires. Floods move contaminated water and disease-carrying insects. And a rise in food prices due to bad weather or shortages falls hardest on the low-income. [more]

How climate change became a civil rights issue



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