Preserving Our Democracy Starts with Saving our Environment [Op-Ed]

By Derrick Johnson, Mustafa Santiago Ali, Representative Gilda Cobb-Hunter Nov 08, 2019

Our communities know what suffering looks like.

Take a basic right like access to clean water. We have seen what happens when governments their constituents in the most vulnerable in communities. Flint is widely known as the emblematic example of what happens when politicians put profits and politics over people, but there are other cities and towns headed down the same path: dangerously high levels of lead and other contaminants have been found in the water supply in Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Newark, Detroit and even Washington, D.C. Even more shocking is the data that shows that every year from 1982 to 2015, between 9 million and 45 million Americans got their drinking water from a source that violated the standards of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

When we start to unpack something so fundamental as access to clean water, we open a Pandora’s box that links the fight for environmental justice to all people regardless of race, creed, national origin or income. We also find that the remedy to the suffering caused by the wrong political choices reach into the arenas of development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.

People of color and underserved communities have long borne the uneven burden of pollution’s impact, but have rarely benefited from the economic growth that bouys the industries that produce these impacts. This imbalance must be corrected. History shows us that policies that prohibit discrimination based on race, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, have far-reaching benefits. However, policies such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act are examples of federal regulations that should be more intentional about eliminating the disparities realized by communities of color. To date the results have been limited at best.

As the presidential candidates who are vying to lead this nation shape their policy platforms and agendas, they must ensure that environmental justice and equity are a top priority. The linkages to health, the economy and quality of life are clear, and the necessity for a bold new vision that includes us all is non-negotiable. We may not agree on all the details, but we know that when drinking water is contaminated because of poor choices, then we have reached a crisis point that is not debatable. Moreover, we must ensure that the decisions made today create a healthier and safer environment for those who will come after us.

Our communities know what the solutions to suffering look like.

The reality for most people in this nation is that we are working every day to make life better for our families. This means we need to ensure our communities are afforded protection from environmental and health hazards, and that there is equal access to the decision-making process to support a healthy environment in which to live, learn and work.

In the upcoming year, we must make it clear to the president of the United States, Donald Trump; Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler; Chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Senator John Barrasso; and every candidate running for public office that environmental protections and reforms must be inclusive and reflect the unique needs of all communities, specifically those that are underserved and most vulnerable. This requires transparent decision-making and public input in policy formation. To learn how you can help shift the narrative around environmental protections and justice and hold leadership accountable, stream our 2019 Presidential Forum on Environmental Justice on Friday (November 8).

Representative Gilda Cobb-Hunter (D-S.C.) is a Democratic member of the South Carolina House of Representatives and president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators. Find her on Twitter @gcobbhunter.

Derrick Johnson is president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Find him on Twitter @derricknaacp.

Mustafa Santiago Ali is vice president of environmental justice, climate and community revitalization for National Wildlife Federation. Find him on Twitter @ejinaction.