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African Americans in Africa: Climate Justice and COP17

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Climate change looms as a major environmental justice issue of the twenty-first century. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) or COP17 Climate Change Conference started its second week on Monday and runs thru December 9 in Durban, South Africa. Because of the importance of global climate issues and their impact on vulnerable populations in the United States and around the world, and especially on Africa and the African diaspora, my colleague Dr. Beverly Wright, Director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University in New Orleans, and I organized a twelve-member African American delegation to participate in the Durban conference.

Our delegation is made up of students from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), academics, human rights advocates, researchers and policy analysts, environmental and climate justice leaders, and Hurricane Katrina survivors from New Orleans.   The members include: Brittani Flowers and Eboni Barnes, first-year MPA graduate students from the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University (Houston, TX); Peyton Mandella Wilkins and Stephawn Spears, students at Dillard University (New Orleans, LA); Oluremi Petrice Abiodun and Imani Maisha Hester, students at Spelman College (Atlanta, GA); Kari Fulton, Interim Director of Environmental Justice Climate Change Initiative (Washington, DC); Monique Harden (New Orleans, LA) and Michelle Roberts (Washington, DC) of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights; and Cecil Corbin Mark of WE ACT for Environmental Justice and Environmental Justice Leadership Forum on Climate Change (Harlem, NY).

The 12-day Durban conference picked up where last year's COP16 meeting in Cancun, Mexico left off. More than 15,000 official delegates and 10,000 observers from more than 190 countries are expected at COP17. They include presidents, ministers, senior government and UN officials, advisers, scientists, climate activist groups, business people and journalists. Several members of our delegation have attended COPs dating back to the COP6 held in The Hague, Netherlands in 2000--a gathering that hosted the Climate Justice Summit--attended by more than 1,000 nongovernmental organization leaders from around the world.

For us, climate change goes well beyond the direct impacts of sea-level rise. We place health, social justice and equity at the center.   Climate change will exacerbate environmental health disparities and increase inequality between the "haves" and "have-nots."  Getting CO2 and other co-pollutants under control and integrating air-quality (i.e., reduction in criteria pollutants such as ozone, particulate matter; carbon monoxide; nitrogen oxides; sulfur dioxide, and lead) into climate change policymaking would result in disproportionate positive co-benefits to over-polluted communities.

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Air pollution claims 70,000 lives annually.  More than 57 percent of whites, 65 percent of blacks, and 80 percent of Hispanics live in counties with substandard air. Air pollution costs Americans $10 billion to $200 billion a year. More than 57 percent of whites, 65 percent of blacks, and 80 percent of Hispanics live in counties with substandard air. Air pollution costs Americans $10 billion to $200 billion a year. Global warming will increase the number of heat advisories and "bad-air days" by as much as 155 percent in some cities--worsening existing asthma and respiratory problems. African Americans make up about 12 percent of the U.S. population but account for 25 percent of the 4,099 deaths attributed to asthma.

A 2011 Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) report Climate Change and Your Health: Rising Temperatures, Worsening Ozone Pollution found that unchecked global warming could increase ground-level ozone, threatening U.S. public health and the economy could cost approximately $5.4 billion in 2020. Climate change-induced ozone increases could result in 2.8 million additional serious respiratory illnesses, 5,100 additional infants and seniors hospitalized with serious breathing problems, and 944,000 additional missed school days in the United States in 2020.

Six members of our delegation are survivors of Hurricane Katrina--a powerful storm that devastated the U.S. Gulf Coast and drowned New Orleans in 2005. Six years after Katrina, the scars of social inequality remain--and some have actually widened. African Americans and low-wealth households--the same groups that were most vulnerable before the storm--were hit hardest by flooding and have had the greatest difficulty returning and recovering.

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African Americans made up 44 percent of storm victims, and in Orleans Parish, an estimated 272,000 African Americans were displaced by flooding or damage accounting for 73 percent of the population affected by the storm in the parish. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation report, five years after the storm, 42 percent of African-Americans versus just 16 percent of whites indicated they have not recovered from the storm. Today, New Orleans has a population of about 343,849 or 71 percent of its 2000 size--approximately 110,000 less than when Katrina hit and 65,423 fewer African-American women. According to a Brookings report, the city has more males, is whiter and more prosperous. 

As of fall 2010, New Orleans' eight colleges and universities have 88 percent of their pre--Katrina (2004--05) total enrollment, an increase from 73 percent in fall 2007 and 84 percent in fall 2009. While enrollment is also rebounding at New Orleans' three HBCUs (Xavier University, Southern University at New Orleans, and Dillard University), they still face special recovery challenges.  

Why an HBCU climate initiative? Why Durban? Generally, HBCUs hit by the storms, floods, and other disasters have been slow to recover.  The vast majority of the 105 HBCUs are located in the southern states--a vulnerable region where intense hurricanes, drought, flooding, and other climate-sensitive hazards are commonplace. Climate-related disasters in the South have outnumbered those in other regions of the country annually in both scale and magnitude by a ratio of almost 4:1 during the past 10 years.

The fault lines of vulnerability and inequality are also seen in recent droughts and heat waves, tornadoes, hurricanes and floods, and wind damage caused by Hurricane Irene along the eastern seaboard. Many of the students attending HBCUs are from cities whose residents face the greatest health and environmental threats from climate change. It makes a lot of sense that HBCUs take the lead in developing partnerships with nongovernmental organizations, government and the business community to educate and train the next generation of leaders to address climate change. It's the right thing to do and it's the right time to do it. With initial support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Gulf Coast Fund for Community Renewal and Ecological Health, we have committed to build and grow a strong HBCU Climate Partnership.    


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Robert D. Bullard is Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy in the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University in Houston. His most recent book is entitled "The Wrong Complexion (more...)

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