Georgia's Activists of Color Offer Hope for Meaningful Action on Climate Justice

Alina Gonzalez
Minor Sinclair

July 15, 2021

President Joe Biden is breaking the status quo: He has pledged to write a new chapter in America's leadership on climate change. Unlike any other president, he has outlined specific and aggressive targets to reduce carbon emissions and has backed them up with a $2 trillion plan to fight climate change.

In the meantime, our climate continues to change rapidly and dramatically, raising the ever more urgent question: Will the politics of climate change shift in time to curb its worst effects?

We think it will.

First, low-income people of color are leading a growing movement for environmental justice.

Communities along Georgia's coast, including Tybee Island, Brunswick and Savannah, are feeling the ravages of climate change — from wildfires to high energy prices to coastal erosion — and residents are agitating for change. Fortunately, Georgia enjoys significant wind potential off its coast, according to a new study by Environment Georgia. Offshore wind power is renewable and can curb climate change, and Biden fully supports it.

Wind energy also promises to help communities in "sacrifice zones" — areas with poor air and water quality or economic disinvestment, often through unwanted land use. Without it, communities like those in Albany, which are overburdened by toxic facilities, will continue to suffer from poor air quality. Asthma rates are higher there than the national average.

To protect Albany residents and others sacrifice zones, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently announced it would spend more than $2 million on four environmental initiatives in Georgia, including a $300,000 project in Albany to assess and clean up contained and abandoned industrial and commercial properties.

Second, and as important, youth activism is on the rise in Georgia and around the world. Historically known for their low turnout at the ballot box, young people are increasingly demanding political and social change — and to good effect.

Last fall, Georgia backed a Democratic presidential nominee for the first time in nearly three decades, playing a critical role in ousting our former climate-denier-in-chief and sending a climate justice president to the White House.

Young Georgians played an outsize role in the outcome, casting the largest percentage of any state's "youth votes" (tying with Virginia). Young voters of color were especially pivotal; a stunning 90 percent of Black youth in the Peach State voted for Biden. Thanks in large part to youth activists, Georgia's U.S. Senate seats also flipped, allowing Democrats supporting climate action to control the White House and Congress.

Major implications for Georgia

These twin phenomena have major implications for our state, our nation, and our world.

Climate change is affecting thousands of communities across the country, as documented by a recently relaunched website hosted by EPA. The website shows that heat waves are growing more frequent and sea levels are rising, particularly on the Mid-Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. These pose dire risks for hot coastal states like Georgia.

Many Georgians are aware of climate change and the need for clean energy policies and programs. Some 77% of Georgia voters believe in the science of global warming, and 87% want to build more solar power facilities, according to a recent survey by the University of Georgia.

Environmental advocates are also prioritizing the impact of climate change on low-income communities of color, who shoulder disproportionate harm from our reliance on fossil fuels. Nationwide, more than four in 10 people live in polluted areas, according to a recent report by the American Lung Association (ALA). But more than six in 10 people of color do so.

The ALA gave Atlanta, the second-largest majority-Black metro area in the country and the birthplace of the environmental justice movement, an "F" for exposure to pollution. The climate injustice is clear: It's in the air we breathe.

People of color are in fact disproportionately exposed to pollution from every source: industry, agriculture, vehicle, construction, and residential, according to a new study by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Its findings are consistent with concerns long voiced by communities of color in sacrifice zones in Georgia and across the United States.

Environmental justice advocates and youth activists — especially those of color — are raising their voice for change. They're having an effect, and they offer hope for the rest of us.

If climate politics in the once deep-red state of Georgia can shift so rapidly and substantially, then they can shift nationally too. We may finally be turning the page to a new chapter in America's leadership in climate change.

Editor's note: Co-author Alina Gonzalez is from Savannah, Georgia.

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