Climate change and environmental pollution disproportionately impact people of color. In New Orleans, Dr. Beverly Wright is working to change that. She started the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, which is now housed at Dillard University, and has worked for many years to highlight the environmental and health inequities in the Lower Mississippi River Industrial Corridor, commonly referred to as "Cancer Alley."
Wright is traveling to the international climate talks in Paris with a group of students from Dillard and other historic black universities in the south.
Wendland: Dr. Wright, can you start by helping us to understand this intersection of social justice and climate change?
Wright: The whole concept of environmental justice grew out of people’s concerns that they were being poisoned, mostly by industry or that they lived very close to toxic facilities including landfills. So after working on those issues for many years we began to hear a whisper of climate change and it’s impacts. Over 15 years ago the environmental justice community made that nexus between social justice and climate change, calling it "climate justice." We began to make the connection basically saying that these communities were in double jeopardy. Double jeopardy first of all by being exposed to chemicals that are impacting climate. Secondly in jeopardy of being affected by the impacts of climate – increases in storms, hurricanes, tornados -- bad weather period. While at the same time not having insurance, not having access to hospitals and they’re not being a fund to help them survive.
Wendland: Can you talk about what communities here might share in common with other communities across the country and world and how widespread this challenge is?
Wright: Well what communities in New Orleans and in Louisiana share with other communities around the country and around the world is that they are frontline communities when it comes to bearing the impacts of climate change with sea level rise and coastal erosion. What we have in common with the island states, the Caribbean, not to mention Africa, India and all of the other countries that are just on the edge – who will get the brunt of climate change first. Alaska. And in the environmental justice movement we have worked with all of these groups. What has driven me with this particular – and that is the HBCU Climate Justice Initiative – is the fact that whenever I have gone to these meetings African American youth have not been present.
Wendland: You’re taking a group of student with you to the climate talks in Paris – what do you hope to accomplish there?
Wright: I hope to accomplish two things. I hope to grow the voices of students at HBCUs in the climate movement and to encourage them to become active and remain active in the international conversations as it relates to climate. We have about 104 HBCUs. Most of them are in the south. Most of them are in areas that will be impacted by climate change, but on the climate scene – in terms of African American youth – we are a very small minority. So we should be at the table representing our own communities and representing our own voice in this climate conversation.
Wendland: How can a small group of activists and students from Louisiana get the attention of the international community?
Wright: Well, it’s very interesting – it seems that since we have not been at the table, everybody wants to talk to us. So we are like an enigma when we show up. We showed up at the climate march in New York City and cameras were everywhere. We have not been there so everybody is contacting us and wanting to talk to us. I think one of the ways that we can be effective is by forming coalitions with other island states, other minorities, countries that are most impacted. We have heard from all of them. We’re trying to figure out how we’re going to meet with all of these groups from around the world who welcome us into this conversation, who are happy that we are there and want to form partnerships and coalitions with us.
Support for the coastal desk’s reporting from Paris is provided by the Foundation for Louisiana.
Support also comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Coypu Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.