Welcome to West Port Arthur, Texas, Ground Zero in the Fight for Climate Justice

Welcome to West Port Arthur, Texas, Ground Zero in the Fight for Climate Justice

Welcome to West Port Arthur, Texas, Ground Zero in the Fight for Climate Justice

If you live in a toxic environment like this, surrounded by refineries, you’re probably not thinking about some future apocalypse. You’re living in one.


“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today.” —Martin Luther King Jr.

Hilton Kelley stood smiling in the clear April sunshine outside Kelley’s Kitchen in the Gulf Coast city of Port Arthur, Texas, and extended a hand. Kelley, 53, is a big-framed man, with generous, gentle eyes and white stubble. The sign on the small corner restaurant reads Delicious Home-Cooked Food, but Kelley’s Kitchen is no longer serving. Kelley opened the place up in his beloved hometown in 2010 and managed to keep it running for about two and a half years. “It was going fairly well,” he told me. “But, you know, the town really doesn’t get a lot of foot traffic on this side of Port Arthur anymore.”

Kelley’s Kitchen is the only structure left standing on its section of Austin Avenue, just two blocks from the main downtown thoroughfare. In every direction are more vacant lots and dilapidated buildings—windows blown out, many of them empty for years, even decades. In the bright sun, the streets at midday on a Friday were ghostly quiet.

“This area was once a thriving community,” Kelley said. “It was traffic up and down Austin Avenue here.”

He invited me inside, out of the glare, and we sat at one of the tables in the well-kept place, which he now rents out for private parties and special occasions—there’s even a small dance floor complete with shiny disco ball. But that’s not all that goes on at Kelley’s Kitchen. The space doubles as the office of the Community In-Power & Development Association, or CIDA—the small, tough, grassroots community advocacy and environmental justice organization that Kelley founded in 2000, soon after returning to Port Arthur from California, where he was working in the movie industry as an actor and stunt man. In 2011, he received the prestigious Goldman Prize for his environmental justice activism. Kelley has testified before the Texas Legislature and the US Senate, addressed UNESCO in Paris, and met President Obama at the White House.

Just a few blocks from where we sat is the historic African-American community of West Port Arthur, where Kelley was born and raised in the Carver Terrace housing project, on the fence line of two massive oil refineries—one owned by Valero (formerly Gulf Oil) and the other by Motiva (formerly Texaco). In fact, the recently completed expansion of the Motiva refinery, which Kelley’s group fought hard against, makes it the largest in the nation, having more than doubled its capacity to 600,000 barrels of crude per day. Nearby are five more petrochemical plants and the Veolia incinerator facility. Port Arthur is on the receiving end of the Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline, the southern leg of which—cutting through East Texas communities—went operational in January. But the industry brings few jobs to West Port Arthur, where unemployment is over 15 percent. Workers commute to the plants, and economic development has moved north since the 1980s, along with white flight, to the newer Mid-County area along Highway 69 toward Nederland, where you’ll find a sudden explosion of malls, big-box stores, hotels and theme restaurants with busy parking lots.

And yet the economic abandonment of the downtown area and West Port Arthur, in the very shadow of the world’s richest industry, isn’t even the whole story—there’s also the pollution, some of the most toxic in the country. “One in five West Port Arthur households has someone in it with a respiratory illness,” Kelley said. “One in five.” The county’s cancer mortality rate, according to a recent study, is 25 percent higher than the state average. Toxic “events”—whether from gas flares or accidents—are common, Kelley told me: emissions often darkening the sky, fumes wafting into the neighborhood. The community is downwind of several of the refineries nearby. “If one isn’t flaring or smoking, another one is,” Kelley said. “At least twice a month, we’re going to get some flaring and smoke from one of them.” As much as he can, he documents the events. “Sometimes it’ll be really pungent, to the point where it stings the nose and eyes.”

But apart from these incidents, he added, there’s the constant day-to-day toxic menace in the air. “It’s not always what you see—it’s what you don’t see. A lot of these gases are very dangerous. Sometimes newcomers will smell it and we can’t, because we’re desensitized to it.”

* * *

Kelley had offered to show me around Port Arthur and give me the fence-line tour on the west side, the community where he grew up. I knew about his accomplishments with CIDA—among other things, how they’d successfully pressured both Motiva and Valero, the former to install state-of-the-art equipment to reduce toxic emissions and pay for a community development center, and the latter to fund a new health clinic. And I understood that CIDA is more than an environmental justice group: its mission is to educate, empower and revitalize the community, working especially with young people. I knew that Kelley has made a real difference since returning home.

But before we left Kelley’s Kitchen, I needed to ask him about another threat—one that, given Port Arthur’s economic and racial marginalization, its proximity to dangerous petrochemical infrastructure, and its location on the gulf, could ultimately be the most devastating of all.

Yes, he answered, “we are seeing some of the impacts of climate change around here, as a matter of fact.” The rising sea level has washed out parts of Highway 87 between Port Arthur and Galveston. “They’ve abandoned the road,” Kelley said. And the ferocity of hurricanes, from Katrina and Rita to Ike, has shaken even Port Arthur natives like him. They were spared the worst of Katrina, “but Rita came very soon after that, and that’s when we got hit hard,” Kelley said. “I mean, a lot of the houses are gone. You can still see the FEMA tarps on some of the roofs today. A lot of homes that were once inhabited are now abandoned, because the federal dollars didn’t come in soon enough and the houses just dry-rotted.” The residents of Port Arthur haven’t faced the kind of epic flooding that was seen in New Orleans, but with Hurricane Ike they came close. “Ike brought in a huge surge, and it reached right to the top of our hundred-year levee but didn’t breach it.” Even so, the roof of Kelley’s old office was torn off: “The rain just poured in and destroyed everything.”

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

Bullard, who grew up in small-town Alabama, speaks with an orator’s cadences and a comedian’s timing. At 67, he has a fighter’s glint in his eye and an irresistibly mischievous grin above a Du Boisian goatee (he calls W.E.B. Du Bois his intellectual hero). In Houston, I asked him about the relationship between environmental justice, traditionally understood, and climate justice—and why they sometimes appear to be in tension, at least in the United States.

Bullard likes to start with a history lesson. In 1991, he helped convene the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, DC, where seventeen “Principles of Environmental Justice” were adopted. At the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, those principles were circulated in several languages. But it wasn’t until 2000, in The Hague, that Bullard joined other leaders and groups from around the world for the first “climate justice summit,” meeting in parallel with the sixth United Nations climate conference, or COP 6. “It was a very transformative time,” Bullard recalled. “When environmental justice groups and groups working on climate, on human rights and social justice and civil rights, came together in The Hague in 2000, ‘climate justice’ was not a term that was universally used.” At that summit, “we said that climate justice has to be the centerpiece in dealing with climate change. If you look at the communities that are impacted first, worst and longest—whether in Asia, Africa, Latin America or here in the US—when you talk about the majority of people around the world, climate justice is not a footnote. It is the centerpiece.” And this is not a minority view, he added: “It’s the majority view.”

And yet, Bullard said, here in the United States, “equity and justice get a footnote”—in terms of framing the conversation, it’s been a struggle to make sure that justice is given parity with the science. “That’s the rub,” Bullard told me. “And that’s why the climate movement has not been able to get traction like you’d think it would, given the facts that are there. The people on the ground who could actually form the face of climate change, be the poster child of global warming—they’re almost relegated to the fringes. And that is a mistake.” In the United States as well as globally, Bullard said, “we know the faces, we know what they look like. We know the frontline communities, the frontline nations. But to what extent do we have leadership that’s reflective of communities that are hardest hit? Very little has changed over the last twenty years when it comes to who’s out there.”

I observed that climate justice ought to be the most unifying concept on the planet, if only for the simple reason that people tend to care about their children and grandchildren. I had asked Bullard earlier about the idea of intergenerational justice—the fact that, along with those in the poorest and most vulnerable communities around the world, today’s young people and future generations will bear the vastly disproportionate, potentially devastating impacts of climate change. Isn’t climate justice really environmental justice writ large—in fact, on a global scale—yet with this added generational dimension?

“Exactly,” Bullard said. “And for me, that’s the glue and the organizing catalyst that can bring people together across racial and class lines.”

In that case, I wondered aloud, if the central mission and purpose of the climate movement is to prevent runaway, civilization-destroying global warming—in other words, to create the necessary political and economic conditions for a last-ditch, all-out effort to keep enough fossil fuels in the ground—then isn’t that work already about racial, economic, social and, yes, generational justice? Because the consequences, if we don’t do everything possible to keep fossil fuels in the ground—

“Then we’re not going to have any justice,” Bullard interjected.

“In terms of the moral imperative,” he added, “looking at the severe impacts—the impact on food security, on cross-border conflicts, war, climate refugees—when you look at the human rights piece, in terms of threats to humanity, if we drew it out and looked at it, I think more people would be appalled at these little baby steps that we’re taking. This is an emergency, and it calls for emergency action—not baby steps, but emergency action.”

Nevertheless, Bullard also explained why that all-consuming focus on greenhouse gas emissions is insufficient by itself.

“You have to understand that in order to have a movement, people have to identify with—and own—the movement,” he said. “Just saying climate change is a big problem is not enough to get people to say, ‘We’re gonna work to try to keep coal and oil in the ground.’ There has to be something to trigger people to say, ‘This is my own movement.’”

Bullard believes that the climate justice framework can “bring more people to the table.” Take the example of coal plants: “The environmental justice analysis is that it’s not just the greenhouse gases we’re talking about; in terms of health, it’s also these nasty co-pollutants that are doing damage right now. Not the future—right now.”

So to bring those people to the table, he continued, “you have to say: How do you build a movement around that and reach people where they are?”

* * *

Last year, Bullard and his colleagues at TSU and other historically black colleges and universities—including Beverly Wright at Dillard and the Deep South Center in New Orleans—launched an initiative they call the Climate Education Community University Partnership (CECUP). “We’re linking our schools with these vulnerable communities,” Bullard told me, “trying to get to a population that has historically been left out. We’re going to try to get our people involved.”

When you look at the most vulnerable communities, the “adaptation hot spots,” he added, these are the same communities the schools were founded to serve, and often the very places in which they are located. “We’re not going to wait for somebody to ride in on a white horse and say, ‘We’re going to save these communities!’” Bullard said. “We have to take leadership.”

The initiative invests in a new generation of young scholars and leaders who can draw the connections between greenhouse gas emissions, climate adaptation, and the classic environmental justice issues of pollution, health, and racial and class disparities. “Our folks on the ground can make the connections between these dirty diesel buses, that dirty coal plant, and their kids having to go to the emergency room because of an asthma attack, with no health insurance,” Bullard said. “We see it as human rights issues, environmental issues, health issues, issues of differential power.”

Clearly, anyone like me—with my 40,000-foot view of the climate crisis—would do well to try seeing the concept of climate justice from the ground up, at street level, and through a racial-equity lens. Sitting down with five of Bullard’s graduate students at TSU—joined by two of his colleagues, sociologist and associate dean Glenn Johnson and environmental toxicologist Denae King—I was treated to a generous portion of that ground-up perspective.

For Steven Washington, a 29-year-old native of Houston’s Third Ward and a second-year master’s student in urban planning and public policy, “climate change means asthma; it means health disparities.” Working in Pleasantville, a fence-line community along the Port of Houston, he’s concerned about the city’s notorious air quality, graded F by the American Lung Association, and what it means for a population—especially the elderly—ill equipped to deal with the impacts of climate change. For Jenise Young, a 33-year-old doctoral student in urban planning and environmental policy whose 9-year-old son suffers from severe asthma, climate change is also about “food deserts” like the one surrounding the TSU campus—a social inequity that climate change, as it increases food insecurity, only deepens. (The wealthier University of Houston campus next door inhabits something of an oasis in that desert.) Jamila Gomez, 26, a second-year master’s student in urban planning and environmental policy, points to transportation inequities—the fact that students can’t get to internships in the city, that the elderly can’t get to grocery stores and doctors’ offices, that the bus service takes too long and Third Ward bus stops lack shade on Houston’s sweltering summer days.

I asked the students if they see the growing US climate justice movement—especially students and young people who want to foreground these issues—as a hopeful sign.

“My major concern is that this is a lifelong commitment,” Young replied. “That’s my issue with a lot of the climate justice movement—that it’s the hot topic right now. Prior to that, it was Occupy Wall Street. Prior to that, it was the Obama campaign. But what happens when this is not a fad for you anymore? Because this is not a fad.”

Glenn Johnson, the co-editor of several books, including Environmental Health and Racial Equity in the United States, chimed in: “It’s a life-and-death situation. There are others who come into the movement, they have a choice—they can go back to their respective communities. But for us, there’s no backing out of talking about the [Houston] ship channel. We are the front line; it’s 24/7. When we wake up, we smell that shit.”

“It’s not one problem,” said Denae King. “It’s multiple problems—poverty, food security, greenhouse emissions, all of these things happening at once. In the mind of a person living in a fence-line community, you have to address all of the problems.” Climate change is urgent, she added, “but still, I have to pay my bills today. I have to provide healthy food today.”

All of which is undeniably true. And it is equally true that the scientific evidence overwhelmingly indicates that the window in which to take serious action on climate change is closing fast. Unless we act now to begin radically reducing greenhouse gas emissions and building resilience, our children and future generations face catastrophe. What you hear from climate justice advocates working on the front lines is that, precisely because of this emergency, the way to build a powerful movement is to approach climate change as an intersectional issue.

After I left Houston, I spoke with Jacqueline Patterson, director of the Environmental and Climate Justice Program at the NAACP. One of the first things she did upon arriving in 2009, Patterson told me, was to write a memo looking at climate justice and the NAACP’s traditional agenda. “It went area by area—health, education, civic engagement, criminal justice, economic development—and showed how environmental and climate justice directly intersect in myriad ways.”

Patterson’s work rests on the understanding that if we’re going to address climate change seriously, then we’re in for a rapid energy transition—one that’s by no means guaranteed to be smooth or economically just. In December, her initiative released its “Just Energy Policies” report, looking state by state at the measures—from local-hire provisions to ones for minority- and women-owned businesses—that can help bring about a just transition to clean energy. At a press conference in Milwaukee the day before, Patterson said, she stood next to NAACP leaders, “and we were talking about starting a training and job-placement program for formerly incarcerated youth and youth at risk around solar installation and energy-efficiency retrofitting.” An energy-efficiency bill was recently introduced in the Missouri Legislature, she noted. “Before, we might not have seen the NAACP getting behind that legislation, because the energy conversation wasn’t seen as part of our civil rights agenda. Now, they’re in with both feet.”

Bob Bullard talks about growing up in the small, deeply segregated town of Elba, Alabama, where he graduated from high school in 1964, the year of Freedom Summer and the Civil Rights Act. He went to Alabama A&M, the historically black university in Huntsville, graduated in 1968, then served in the Marines from 1968 to 1970 (but was mercifully spared Vietnam). Bullard was formed by the civil rights struggle. “I was a sophomore in 1965,” he said. “That was the year of Selma and the bridge. As students, you’re very conscious.” He revered Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker and many others. “You identified with a struggle, and you saw it as your struggle.”

Bullard has written about King’s final campaign, when he went to Memphis in 1968 to march in solidarity with the striking sanitation workers. “I tell my students, ‘If you don’t think garbage is an environmental justice issue, you let the garbage workers go on strike.’”

If environmental justice emerged out of the civil rights struggle, then you could almost say that Bullard’s work, and the movement to which he’s dedicated his life, began there in Memphis—picking up where King’s work was cut short.

* * *

Hilton Kelley drove me up Houston Avenue, through what he calls Old Port Arthur, parallel to the railroad tracks that separate the African-American west side from downtown. “This was the booming area during the heyday of Port Arthur,” he said. As we drove alongside the tracks, Kelley pointed to at least three small grocery stores that had long since gone out of business.

We crossed the tracks and drove past a housing project built in the 1970s. Kelley showed me St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church, where the Rev. Elijah “EJ” James allowed him to hold some of his first organizing meetings. But he’s been asked not to distribute fliers outside some of the churches. Kelly affected an old man’s voice: “‘We can appreciate what you’re doing, son. But don’t pass that out around here.’” He added, “Some of them work at the plants.”

We stopped to see his old high school, now a middle school. I noticed the flag was flying at half-staff and wondered why. We both thought for a moment.

“Oh, it must be for MLK,” Kelley said.

Of course. I had completely forgotten—it was April 4.

“I remember when Martin Luther King was shot,” he said. “You could hear the neighbors crying. So I ran down the street to tell my mother, who was down at the laundromat, and she was already in tears. She’d already heard about it. I was 7 years old. It was a sad day.”

We drove down 14th Street, past the small houses—some in good repair with well-kept front yards, many others in poor condition, some at the point of collapse. A few blocks farther, where the road ends, was Carver Terrace, the housing project where Kelley grew up, a stone’s throw from the Valero refinery. Carver Terrace is empty now, slated for demolition, its residents given housing vouchers with the option to relocate to a new project in another part of town—one at least not directly in harm’s way. The last family had moved out about three weeks earlier, Kelley told me.

We got out and stood among the rows of long, plain-brick, two-story buildings. “If you’d come here six months ago,” Kelley said, “you would’ve seen kids running across the street and playing ball right here.”

I asked him how it felt to see it like this now.

“Oh, man, it’s like The Twilight Zone,” he said. “I’m getting used to it, but I ride by here every day.”

Not fifty yards from Carver Terrace, and even closer to a playground with new play structures, exposed pipes emerged from the berm along the Valero fence. Signs read: Warning: Light Hydrocarbon Pipeline.

Kelley told me that he never thought he’d be doing this work for as long as he has. “But here I am,” he said, “fourteen years down the road, still chopping away at it. New issues keep cropping up. But trust me, I’m no ways tired. What I’ve discovered is that we are a necessary entity in this community. I’m here to stay.”

It was a beautiful day, and Kelley drove with the windows down. A middle-aged woman on the street called out to him. “How’s it going?” Kelley said, genuine warmth in his voice.

“Pretty good,” she called back. “How you doin’?”

“I’m hangin’ on in there, enjoyin’ this day.”

“This is a great community to grow up in,” Kelley told me. “I ran and played up and down these streets. I love the smell in the air right now, the plants growing, the springtime. We’ve got a pretty good day today—don’t have any high emissions levels. I’m lovin’ it. You can smell the flowers.”

* * *

The next morning, I went back on my own and drove around downtown and the west side of Port Arthur. It was overcast now, the gray light altering the mood of the day before, and I was overcome by a need to see the ocean, across Sabine Lake and the coastal marshes on the Louisiana side. So I drove out of Port Arthur on Highway 82, passing still more petrochemical plants along the way, and stopped after half an hour at a row of beach houses built on sturdy pilings. The wind on my face was fresh and welcome, but on the horizon, up and down the coast, I could see the oil platforms. No escape.

Heading back into Port Arthur, crossing the wide channel at the mouth of Sabine Lake, I drove over the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Bridge. As I crested its steep ascent, the Valero and Motiva refineries were spread out in front of me. The dystopian petrochemical landscape stretched into the distance, and I caught my breath at the sight of it as I descended.

What are we fighting for? What are any of us who care about climate justice fighting for? What does “climate justice” mean in the face of the dehumanizing, world-devouring carbon-industrial machine, of which we ourselves are a part? What does it mean in the face of the latest science—which keeps telling us, in its bloodless language, just how late the hour really is?

In 1967, Martin Luther King published his final book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? In those pages, and in his speeches during those last years, he struggled to reinvigorate and reunite the civil rights movement, which was coming apart at the seams over Black Power and nonviolence, over separatism and integration, over how fast and how hard to push for economic justice and against the war in Vietnam. And while he’s often cast these days as a moderate, it’s important to remember just how radical King was.

Critics—including some of his allies—thought that he should stick to race and civil rights and not address what they considered the “separate issues” of labor, poverty and, most of all, war. But King understood that all of these issues were interconnected—that, at a profound level, they intersected. He saw that the “unholy trinity” of racism, poverty and war—with the threat of nuclear annihilation always in the air—were, at root, one and the same. They are all forms of violence, he argued; they all grow from “man’s inhumanity to man” and must be confronted by an unconditional and universal love.

It seems that movements can reach a critical point at which unity—the need to come together around common principles and a common struggle, and a common understanding of what that struggle is about—becomes all-important. The question now is whether climate justice can be defined broadly enough to encompass everyone—not only our own communities, our own children, but everyone, everywhere, including generations not yet born—in order to keep even the possibility of justice alive on Earth.

Because the only chance we have now is to fight for each other. We have to fight for the person sitting next to us and the person living next door to us, for the person across town and across the tracks from us, and for the person across the continent and across the ocean from us. Because we’re fighting for our humanity. Not simply for our own survival, but for the survival of some legitimate hope for what King called the “beloved community.” Even as we struggle just to survive.

Our fight is against chaos and for community. And it cannot wait. “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today,” King wrote in the final paragraph of his last book. “We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late.”

It may be too late to prevent catastrophe for countless people. Yet even in the face of all we now know, will it ever be too late to hold on to our humanity?


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