Climate change hits communities of color harder

Effenus Henderson
Effenus Henderson

Saturday will mark the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, when flood waters breached levies, ruined homes and destroyed lives in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

Several weeks earlier, my family and I had vacationed in New Orleans, so the catastrophe was even more real to us. Far from just a “natural” disaster, the events that followed marked the first time the toxic cocktail of racism, poverty and environmental insecurity rose to the forefront of American attention. It will not be the last.

Less obvious, but no less deadly, fossil fuel pollution and global warming in Washington state takes the form of heat and drought, respiratory illness, and displaced jobs and homes – disproportionately punishing communities of color and communities with lower incomes.

South Tacoma and Tacoma’s South End already rank second and fourth in the region as the communities most highly impacted by air pollution. Global warming will double down on existing trends, hitting communities of color and people with lower incomes first and worst.

So it should be no surprise that polls show that people of color are more concerned and willing to take action to reduce carbon pollution. Front-line communities are organizing and developing solutions right now that move racial, economic and environmental justice to the front and center of the climate movement.

Communities of color have come together to create a statewide climate justice coalition of more than 47 organizations. This coalition includes Washington's leading advocates for racial, economic and environmental justice, such as the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition, NAACP, OneAmerica, Centro Latino, Hilltop Urban Gardens, Washington CAN and many more. Together the coalition moves equity to the center of the climate movement.

Equity means being more inclusive of both the interests and the active leadership of frontline communities in creating solutions.

Toward that end, community of color organizations helped form the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy, Washington state’s coalition dedicated to reducing global warming pollution, creating jobs and building a better future for all families.

The alliance works collaboratively towards solutions with partners in health, labor, environment, faith and business, and is exploring viable alternatives for climate policy by listening to communities and mobilizing for action.

Hurricane Katrina provides a stark reminder that communities of color are on the front lines of climate impacts, and their leadership and interests are central to finding solutions and mobilizing for change.

Effenus Henderson, president and CEO of HenderWorks Inc., was the chief diversity officer for the Weyerhaeuser Co. until retiring in 2013. He lives in Federal Way.