Democratic Presidential Hopefuls Talk Environmental Justice in South Carolina

Protesters gather outside the White House in Washington in 2017 to protest President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate change accord. On Friday, six Democratic hopefuls discussed the need for environmental justice at a forum in South Carolina. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

ORANGEBURG, S.C. (CN) – Environmental justice for suffering communities requires policy changes, action and corporate regulations, six 2020 Democratic presidential candidates explained during a forum in South Carolina on Friday. 

The forum at South Carolina State University was hosted by the National Black Caucus of State Legislators and leaders from frontline and tribal communities. Civil rights groups, and several youth and environmental organizations helped host the event as well. 

According to the event’s sponsors, people of color are most vulnerable to the effects of the climate crisis, industrial pollution and environmental hazards, but their problems often go unreported by news outlets and unaddressed by officials.

“We’ve had forums about every issue in this campaign that I can imagine. The two that have most disappointed me are this one, and the one on criminal justice reform with formerly incarcerated people,” New Jersey Senator Cory Booker said Friday, referring to another event recently held in South Carolina. 

“I’m disappointed, because the two issues that disproportionately affect people of color have had the least attendance of the folks,” he added.

All 2020 candidates were reportedly invited to participate in Friday’s forum. Six agreed to speak. 

Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, entrepreneur Tom Steyer, author Marianne Williamson, and former U.S. Representatives John Delaney and Joe Sestak spoke during the event that unfolded in the critical 2020 Democratic primary state.

“We have a shameful reality, America,” said Booker, who founded the first environmental caucus in the U.S. Senate. 

The candidate cited Duplin County, North Carolina, “where the pig farms and the corporate industrial agriculture are poisoning our soil and our rivers,” Uniontown, Alabama, “where they take coal ash from some communities and dump it into African American Communities,” and his hometown of Newark, New Jersey, among places with a poor environmental record. 

Unlike other 2020 candidates who spoke Friday, Booker approved of the use of nuclear energy as a major solution to climate issues because it comprises about half of the non-carbon energy used in the U.S.

Booker suggested that this type of energy, while not ideal, serves as a stepping-stone away from fossil fuels, which create harmful emissions. 

“Environmental justice is just another word for saying racism. They’ve chosen to concentrate on air and water pollution in black and brown communities and specifically African American Communities,” Tom Steyer said during the forum. 

Steyer said that environmental justice is at the core of his mission. 

“Environmental justice is not an afterthought at all for me. It is absolutely central to what I’m doing,” Steyer told the crowd. 

He said that, if elected president, he would declare a state of emergency for the climate crisis.

Steyer, who is a billionaire – as noted during the forum by moderator Amy Goodwin of Democracy Now! – told the audience that he pledged half of his money to various causes.

Steyer and the other candidates agreed on Friday that unchecked, large corporations are the root of many environmental justice issues. 

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is dominating the polls related to other Friday forum participants, said that states and tribes have more knowledge than Washington about the unique environmental hardships their residents face. 

Warren pledged to allocate a trillion dollars to fighting climate change and to spend one-third of that federal money on environmental justice in communities that are most affected.

Those are called frontline communities, she said – areas where people of color and people of lower socio-economic status especially suffer from environmental problems or neglect. 

If elected, Warren said, she will push through anti-corruption legislation on her first day in office. 

“Anybody who comes up here and tells you about their climate plans who doesn’t have an anti-corruption plan, who doesn’t have a plan to beat back the influence of money in Washington, is not serious,” Warren said. 

“We’ll end up with a plan that has some great name like ‘Cleaned Up the Entire World and Now It’s Full of Unicorns and Butterflies,’ but what it will really do, is continue to carve out enough exceptions that the profits keep flowing to the same people,” she added.

Environmental justice is connected to how state, local and federal governments navigate housing and health issues, among other topics, she explained. 

“We have an obligation to future generations. It’s not about what they will inherit, it’s about what we are borrowing from them and we must meet that obligation,” Warren said. 

Swedish environmental justice activist Greta Thunberg, 16, agrees.

Earlier on Friday, Thunberg spoke to a crowd of school-striking youth in Charlotte, North Carolina, in the government center’s plaza.  

“It can be hard in times like these to find hope, and I can tell you I have not found much hope in politicians and corporations. It is the people who now are our biggest source of hope,” Thunberg said Friday. “The people are the hope right now and humanity is now standing at a crossroads, and when we look back at this crucial time we want to be able to say that we did everything we possibly could to push the world in the right direction.”

School groups, rogue impassioned teens and other individuals gathered to hear Thunberg speak and to urge leaders to act on climate change. 

While researching climate change for a school project about eight months ago, 14-year-old Mary Ellis Stevens stumbled upon a picture of Thunberg sitting alone outside the Swedish parliament. Inspired by the fellow teen’s actions, Stevens, who is a freshman at Myers Park High in Charlotte, began to hold her own vigils at the government center each Friday to urge leaders to take action on climate change. 

“When I started striking, I was convinced that I was going to be alone forever,” Stevens told a crowd of more than 1,000 people in Charlotte on Friday, “So this is really special.” 

Thunberg, messaged Stevens on social media while Stevens was in science class Wednesday.  Thunberg told the activist that she would join her in North Carolina Friday.  

“Whether it is by making the adults surrounding us to vote, or put pressure on the people in power and the politicians who are supposed to serve us, or whether it is spreading awareness among people our own age to urge them to do the same, it is we young people who are the future,” Thurnberg said. “But there is not enough time to wait for us to grow up and become the ones in charge, because we need to tackle the climate and ecological emergency right now.”

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