As North Carolinians head to the polls, there is much to consider as to what kind of state we want to be. We should be concerned about environmental justice — or the meaningful involvement of all peoples in environmental decisions regardless of race, color, culture, national origin or income.
Some people may ask why we should take that into account. The answer is quite clear, and no one has said it better than Dr. Martin L. King Jr. His mantra, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” speaks plainly. Although climate chaos has disproportionate impacts on environmental justice communities, these impacts are not confined to overburdened communities. They exacerbate the overall impact of climate change on the economy and stability of the entire state of North Carolina.
In the past four years, eastern North Carolina has been significantly impacted by Hurricanes Matthew, Florence and Dorian. Now called North Carolina’s “Hurricane Alley,” the 10 North Carolina counties classified as suffering the most from persistent poverty are also those in this zone of climate chaos.
Indeed, of the 40 most distressed counties, 29 are in eastern North Carolina. And this region — already home to communities that suffer disproportionate amounts of land, air and water pollution, and poor health outcomes — is one of the most racially diverse regions of the United States, as well as one of the poorest.
The combined impacts of climate change, environmental pollution poverty, and low health conditions threaten the economic and social stability of the entire state of North Carolina. A broken health care system has led to ever increasing costs; a failure to invest in crumbling infrastructure drives up environmental cleanup costs; and persistent environmental injustice and the systemic racism it supports leads to escalating crime, expanding litigation costs and worse.
Each of these factors contribute to high unemployment and underemployment and in turn an increased need for public assistance. At the end, we are left with a struggling, unjust economy without the funds and energies to more proactively and progressively address education, discovery and innovation.
In short: Everyone loses.
And these are just some examples of the excessive economic burden that results when environmental justice protections are absent.
The good news: The economic burden and inequities this system has long perpetuated can be mitigated when North Carolina moves to tackle equity head-on and to take seriously the beneficent provisions mandated in our state’s constitution.
Climate change has its greatest impact on vulnerable communities. One of the first duties of a civil society is to provide for the poor and the unfortunate. That we might adhere to our constitution, which guarantees protection for all the state’s citizens, while also strengthening our state’s systems and economy, we must promote environmental justice.
To further quote Dr. King: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly” (Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 16 April 1963). Our destinies are joined. A commitment to equality requires empathy for all. Through mutual commitment to justice and equity, we all may thrive.
This will take us all. The most powerful tool we all have is the power to vote. If we want to write a new chapter, right old wrongs, and move into a stronger future together, the time to begin is now.
Show up. Speak Out. Vote for a more just and more prosperous tomorrow.
Donna Chavis of Pembroke is Senior Fossil Fuels Campaigner, Friends of the Earth US; founder, RedTailed Hawk Collective; and a member of the Leadership Team for NC Climate Justice Collective.
Dr. Marian Johnson-Thompson of Durham is retired director, Education and Biomedical Research Development, The National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences, NIH, RTP, NC; and adjunct professor, Maternal and Child Health, School of Public Health, UNC-Chapel Hill.