Welcome to West Port Arthur, Texas, Ground Zero in the Fight for Climate Justice
I’d heard about Port Arthur, but nothing prepared me for the physical reality of the place—a decaying, all-but-forgotten urban landscape inhabited by a struggling and precariously resilient community. As you drive west and north out of downtown, the refineries stretch for miles, at times towering over you like something out of dystopian science fiction. But this is not some futuristic scenario—it’s here and now. And those same smokestacks that are poisoning the inhabitants of Port Arthur are part of a global fossil fuel infrastructure that has trapped us in its political-economic grip, threatening civilization and the future of life on Earth—threatening not only the children of Port Arthur but everyone’s children, everywhere, including my own.
And yet, here’s the thing: if you live in West Port Arthur and toxic emissions have ruined your health, or your child can’t go to school because she can’t breathe, or you can’t find a job and feed your kids and see no way out of the projects—or all of the above—then you’re probably not thinking about some future apocalypse. You’re living in one. You inhabit an apocalyptic present. And what’s true of Port Arthur is true of frontline communities across the Gulf Coast and across the continent—and the world.
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The struggle for climate justice is a struggle at the crossroads of historic and present injustices and a looming catastrophe that will prove to be, if allowed to unfold unchecked, the mother of all injustices. Because the disaster that is unfolding now will not only compound the suffering of those already oppressed—indeed, is already compounding it—but may very well foreclose any future hope of social stability and social justice.
So why does the term “climate justice” barely register in the American conversation about climate change? Lurking in that question is a tension at the heart of the struggle: a tension between the mainstream climate movement (largely white, well-funded and Washington-focused) and those—most often people of color—who have been fighting for social and environmental justice for decades.
Nobody has worked longer and harder at this intersection of climate and environmental justice than Robert Bullard, the celebrated sociologist and activist who is often called the father of the environmental justice movement. In 1994, he founded the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, the first of its kind, and since 2011 he’s been the dean of the Barbara Jordan–Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University (TSU) in Houston. It was Bullard who introduced me to Hilton Kelley, and I knew he could offer historical insight into the relationship between the environmental justice and climate movements.
“Climate change looms as the global environmental justice issue of the twenty-first century,” Bullard writes in 2012’s The Wrong Complexion for Protection: How the Government Response to Disaster Endangers African American Communities, co-authored with longtime collaborator Beverly Wright, founding director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University in New Orleans. “It poses special environmental justice challenges for communities that are already overburdened with air pollution, poverty, and environmentally related illnesses.” Climate change, as Bullard and Wright show, exacerbates existing inequities. “The most vulnerable populations will suffer the earliest and most damaging setbacks,” they write, “even though they have contributed the least to the problem of global warming.” (As if to prove the point, their project was delayed for more than two years by Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed the Deep South Center’s computer files and devastated Wright’s New Orleans East community. Her chapters documenting the unequal treatment of the city’s African-Americans in the Katrina recovery are a tour de force.)
Bullard’s landmark 1990 book Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality established the empirical and theoretical—and, for that matter, moral—basis of environmental justice. Through his early work on the siting of urban landfills in Houston’s African-American neighborhoods, beginning in 1978, as well as the siting around the country of toxic waste and incineration facilities, petrochemical plants and refineries, polluting power plants and more, Bullard has systematically exposed the structural and at times blatant racism—which he calls “environmental racism”—underlying the disproportionate burden of pollution on communities of color, especially African-African communities in the South. His work has done much to set the agenda of the environmental-justice movement.
This year marks the twentieth anniversary of Executive Order 12898, signed by Bill Clinton in February 1994, which explicitly established environmental justice in minority and low-income populations as a principle of federal policy. This year also marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act—a fitting coincidence, as Bullard likes to point out, because the “EJ” executive order reinforced the historic 1964 law. However, in a report released in February called “Environmental Justice Milestones and Accomplishments: 1964 to 2014,” Bullard and his colleagues at TSU write, in what must qualify as understatement: “The EJ Executive Order after twenty years and three U.S. presidents has never been fully implemented.”
I sat down with Bob Bullard (as he’s universally known) in April in his office at TSU, where we had two lively and substantive conversations. I’d interviewed him once before, by phone last August, and in the meantime he’d been much in demand. In September, he received the Sierra Club’s John Muir Award, its highest honor; in March, he delivered the opening keynote address at the National Association of Environmental Law Societies conference at Harvard Law School, assessing environmental justice after twenty years (former EPA chief Lisa Jackson was the other keynoter). He received two standing ovations from the jam-packed Harvard audience.
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