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Black Ministers Rally Action on Climate Change

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The Reverend Gerald Durley, an Atlanta pastor who once worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, always saw his primary charge as “civil and human rights.” He did not consider the environment to be part of that mandate until he went to see “The Great Warming,” a Canadian film about climate change. Then, he says, “it became a moral issue for me.”

He wrote his first Earth Day sermon and authored a guide to help other African-American ministers do the same, published on TheAfricanAmericanLectionary.org. In it, he places global warming alongside a litany of social issues, asking, “what does global warming mean to an African-American pastor in Atlanta, Georgia, who is concerned every day with the elimination of poverty, curtailing homelessness, improving and providing health care, decreasing unemployment, lessening teenage pregnancy, reducing crime, curbing violence, eliminating racism, and trying to assist people through another day?”

When considering the facts of climate change and its disproportionate effect on people of color, he concludes, it is “crystal clear” that “environmental concerns must become an integrated active part of the life-sustaining messages that others, and I, send forth in the African-American community.”

Durley is one of a growing number of faith leaders who are incorporating environmental concerns into the African-American clergy’s social justice traditions. Ministers and environmentalists say there is a shortage of information in the African-American community about the environment. But when the right information reaches members of the black clergy, they take the message to the pulpit.

The Reverend Michael McClain joined the staff of the National Council of Churches Eco-Justice Programs in July 2007. McClain is a Baptist minister who also worked for many years in South Carolina politics. When he went to work for the NCC, he says, the organization was perplexed why “African Americans were not involved in the NCC.” In the past year, he reports gathering signatures from more than 1,000 ministers and 400 lay people endorsing the NCC’s Faith Principles on Global Warming.

Nia Robinson, president of the Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative, a group that works primarily with communities of color, explains that there is “a problem of debunking the myth” in the places she works. “People think ‘the environment’ is just the water, the trees. Where we work, play, and worship are the environment [too], and they deserve to be cared for like the wetlands and ‘nature’.”

To make this point, the EJCC released a report this summer entitled, “A Climate of Change: African Americans, Global Warming, and a Just Climate Policy.” It finds that although the average African American is responsible for 20 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than the average non-Hispanic white American, they are “significantly more vulnerable” to global warming’s effects. The six states with the highest African-American populations are all in the Atlantic hurricane zone, a region that may experience more frequent and severe storms as the planet warms. Global warming can also cause more intense heat waves, and heat death takes the lives of African Americans at almost twice the rate of non-Hispanic whites. African Americans, who spend a greater portion of their income on energy and are twice as likely to be unemployed during the economic downturns that can be triggered by rising energy prices, also pay a greater price for the carbon economy.

Perhaps nowhere is the link between environmental degradation and economic inequality more obvious than in Louisiana. “In the post-Katrina context, the idea that the environment is a problem just for white people, it melted away pretty fast,” says the Reverend Cory Sparks, chair of the Commission on Stewardship of the Environment for the Louisiana Interchurch Conference. After the catastrophic hurricane, the LIC launched the Sustainable Churches for South Louisiana initiative. As churches are rebuilding, Sustainable Churches encourages energy-efficient construction and disaster resilience. Global warming science, he says, “seems to point towards greater intensity [storms], so we know we can’t take any chances.”

Even before Katrina, the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice in New Orleans had been pioneering a strategy for connecting economic advancement and environmental justice in a way that has been gaining increased attention: green jobs. The Deep South Center has run a workforce development program in partnership with local universities for 13 years. The program targets unemployed and underemployed New Orleanians, training them for environmental health work, including mold remediation and lead abatement.

“Green jobs can change everything,” says Louisiana-native Jerome Ringo, now president of the Apollo Alliance, an organization working to transform the American economy through sustainable technology. Ringo spent 20 years working in his state’s petrochemical industry before his concern about that sector’s affect on poor, minority communities turned him into an environmentalist. When he was elected chair of the National Wildlife Federation in 2005, he became the first African American to head a major environmental organization.

Though polling shows that minorities favor environmental protections more strongly than whites, Ringo says that, “environmentalism is not a priority in the minority community because they have a list of priorities that are about quality of life issues like, ‘hey, how am I going to pay this month’s rent.’” Switching to a green economy, he hopes, will create jobs “across the board”: highly-skilled workers who create new energy technology, skilled workers who build wind turbines and solar panels, and people who install and maintain the pieces of a sustainable infrastructure.

“The green movement is the potentially galvanizing movement of our time,” Ringo says. “The challenge we’ve got is that we don’t have enough pied pipers out there to deliver this message, in the black community in particular.” But once black ministers see the potential benefit to their congregations, they get enthusiastic. “By virtue of its economic potential and jobs, [the green movement] could bring people to the table who have not been there before.”

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