A protester at a recent demonstration near the Statehouse.

Credit: Christie Macomber

Standing Up For Standing Rock: The Harsh Realities Of Environmental Racism

January 6, 2017

He paused for a moment, nodding his head and looking upward as he chose his words carefully and slowly. The Reverend Noah Evans recalled the scene he came upon at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation last month.

“There were three armored police cars,” he said. “Police with fully automated weapons, and 36 regular patrol cars … police dressed with full military fatigues, with military gear. The only way you knew they were police was they still had police insignia on them.”

Rev. Evans has served as the rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Medford since 2008. He was among more than 500 clergy members from across the country who were sent to the Standing Rock Reservation at the beginning of November to aid protest efforts in North Dakota over the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which encroaches on Native American territory and threatens to poison the reservation’s fresh water supply. “I felt a very close connection to Standing Rock, so when [Episcopal priest] John Floberg put out the call, it made sense to respond,” said Evans.  

This struggle for justice within environmental spheres is prevalent across racial, generational, and socioeconomic borders. Historically, environmental issues have affected marginalized communities most severely and irreparably—a global problem that has not yet been adequately remedied. It is influenced by factors like ethnicity, location, age, and income.

“The most vulnerable parts of society are the ones that are going to be most affected by this,” said Northeastern sociology professor Daniel Faber. According to Faber, this is because disadvantaged populations have less political and economic resources available to defend themselves. “The less power a people has, the more likely it is that they are going to see this harm inflicted on them,” he said.

Evans agrees. “It’s an issue that’s about native rights and environmental racism,” he said. “There were original plans for this pipeline to go north of Bismarck, but then the people in Bismarck were concerned if there were issues with the pipeline it would pollute Bismarck’s water … so the pipeline was rerouted so that it goes south of Bismarck, next to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. And it was classic environmental racism: ‘We’ll just move the problem to a more vulnerable population who won’t be able to speak up.’”

The ongoing struggle in North Dakota is just one example of a much wider disconnect between the people and the political. Despite the widespread violence directed at the construction site’s peaceful protesters, there has been little action or comment on the part of government officials.

According to Evans, a lack of press coverage may be to blame for the lack of visibility and subsequent inaction on the part of government officials. “The week, before when North Camp was violently cleared, the press and the nation in some ways had turned their head away from Standing Rock, and that allowed that to happen,” he said. “Native rights issues tend to not get a lot of media coverage. They just don’t. I think it’s easy to paint the media with broad brush strokes of why that is, but maybe that’s a sign of some of the cultural racism that is just present within our society.”

In early December the Army Corps of Engineers halted construction of the pipeline. Activists, however, are worried that the incoming Trump administration could undo that decision.

Evans is not alone in his belief that the controversy behind this issue has as much to do with the status of the actors as the actual issue at hand. Native Americans have been historically marginalized, and many fall well below the poverty line. “Few have been ignored by Washington for as long as Native Americans—the first Americans,” said President Barack Obama during his 2008 campaign.

Despite struggles still plaguing the Standing Rock Reservation, actions against climate change, even beyond the pipeline issue, cannot wait. “It’s here, it’s profound, it’s a planetary crisis,” said Faber.

Many millennials have been active in the fight for planetary justice, with large coalitions of college students and young people emerging across the nation. In November, hundreds of students from Georgetown University marched through Washington and gathered in front of Myron Ebell’s office in protest of the climate change skeptic’s appointment to the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) transition team. In October, students from Northeastern University’s DivestNU camped out on the campus’s Centennial Common for weeks in order to champion university divestment from the fossil-fuel industry.

But there is a clear generational gap present in the climate change conversation. According to an article in the Huffington Post, millennials reported the highest percentage of belief in climate change among any age group. The irony is that, despite their contrasting perceptions of the issue, millennials will be the inheritors of the climate change policy decisions of older generations.

This lack of intergenerational justice, Faber said, is symptomatic of an American political system in which big corporations hold tremendous power, which they can leverage politically through actions like campaign donations. Even Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who was in favor of combating climate change, accepted donations from corporations with some ties to the fossil-fuel industry.

The result? A major gap between the voices of scientists and constituents, and the actions of many politicians.

“I’ve never seen such a gulf between what the scientific community says … and what a significant portion of the American people say, and a political establishment that denies that it’s happening,” said Faber.

Under the Obama administration, the United States has made efforts toward combating this global phenomenon. In November,  the Paris Agreement was formally enacted after the required 55 countries, including the US, signed on to the deal. The treaty operates under the primary objective of limiting the total global temperature increase to less than 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, through national pledges to reduce carbon emissions.

But the future of American involvement in combating climate change is uncertain. President-elect Donald Trump notoriously referred to climate change as a hoax “created by and for the Chinese” in a November 2012 tweet, and has stated he would “cancel” the Paris Agreement. Trump engaged in a December discussion with Al Gore on climate change, which Gore described as a “lengthy and very productive session,” according to an article in the New York Times. However, shortly after the talk, the president-elect appointed Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt to head the EPA. Many have seen this as problematic because Pruitt has sued the agency over its Clean Power Plan, aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  

This lack of commitment to help or acknowledge those most affected by environmental factors is ripe with environmental racism. Minority populations and the impoverished are more susceptible to environmental hazards and contaminators, as many are forced to live in close proximity to each other and have less political and economic power to fight back.

“African American, Latino, indigenous, and low-income communities are more likely to live next to a coal-fired power plant, landfill, refinery or other highly polluting facility,” according to an article published on the website of the Goldman Environmental Prize. “These communities bear a disproportionate burden of toxic contamination as a result of pollution in and around their neighborhoods.”     

Barbara Cimatti, a member of the executive board for Northeastern’s Latin American Students Organization, sees global inequities in climate change justice for Latinx communities. “Minority groups are always most affected by anything that happens,” said Cimatti, specifically citing relocation as a concern. Cimatti’s fear is compounded by evidence.

According to Faber, experts are predicting that over the coming decades, there could be more climate change refugees in the world than war refugees. A UN report on climate change has predicted that there may be up to 200 million people displaced due to environmental effects like natural disasters by the year 2050.

Climate change affects actors across all borders and industries, even in nontraditional senses. However, those in more disadvantaged positions, this time economically, once again find themselves most negatively impacted.

Mackenzie Coleman, president of Northeastern’s Art Collaborative, sees a potential future impact of climate change on the art industry, due primarily to the historically lower socioeconomic standing of the artistic community. Globally, artists earn an annual salary that is only a fraction of the living wage, according to the Guardian. In the UK, for example, artists earn about 10,000 pounds a year, or 66 percent of a living wage. In Canada, the average income for artists is just $20,000.  

“Artists are very much stakeholders in the issue, that’s why a lot of the times you see art about climate change,” said Coleman.

Natural disasters related to climate change affect these lower wage-earners most significantly. The costs of evacuation, displacement, and reconstruction following a natural disaster can be enormous. The devastating 2007 Hurricane Katrina exposed these income disparities in the American South. One in six of those affected had no car and no means of evacuating the area prior to the storm, and few had home insurance. Many did not have cable TV, and had to rely on car radios for updates throughout the hurricane, according to a report by ABC News.

Coleman said she hopes to partner with DivestNU, an anti-fossil-fuels coalition, to create a mural or public art display at Northeastern. “Different groups aligning is a powerful tool in activism, and art is something that transcends language…there’s a tremendous potential with art,” she said.

Faber remains hopeful that the new wave of climate change protests and coalitions will produce tangible results. “We have to build these kinds of coalitions, demonstrate [the] promise of green jobs and begin to attack health problems that workers face in these industries,” he said. “You have to build a united front because in the end we’re all going to be impacted.”

Despite these grassroots efforts, Reverend Evans is uncertain as to what the future will hold for those most impacted in North Dakota. “After the presidential election I don’t know what’s going to happen, honestly,” he said. “The permit that the pipeline company has with the Army Corps expires at the end of the year, so it’s possible that the Obama administration is going to be able to do something. But have anything that’s going to be upheld in the next administration? I don’t know.”

This multimedia story was produced as part of WGBH News contributor Dan Kennedy's class in Digital Storytelling and Social Media at Northeastern University.


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