People are experiencing the health consequences of climate change and the activities driving climate change every day—from extreme weather to breathing toxic air and drinking contaminated water. The human right to health cannot be achieved in such conditions.
People’s voices and experiences should continue to be raised to show the world that change must be made swiftly if we are to truly achieve health for all. People’s Health Movement chapters in Canada and the US have been bringing together climate and environmental justice activists to discuss their work in communities across North America.1 Clear messages have come through from these discussions:
- We must work to heighten awareness of the impact of climate change on people’s health
- Poor communities and communities of color are suffering the brunt of this impact; and
- There is space for communities to unite our similar struggles to amplify our voices in demanding change.
We spoke with activists who grew up in communities near sites where extractive practices that drive climate change were taking place. Their stories illustrate the impact of extractive industries on a range of rights including the right to health, indigenous rights, rights to information and participation, equality and non-discrimination a healthy environment, water, an adequate standard of living, and corporate accountability–and the importance of solidarity.
Nellis Kennedy-Howard’s family is from the Navajo Reservation* near the Church Rock uranium spill, the largest uranium spill in US history.2 Bryan Parras grew up on the east side of Houston, Texas where oil refineries are abundant and built alongside schools and residential areas.3 Nellis and Bryan both spent most of their lives never questioning whether the sickness that they, their families, and friends might be connected to these extractive activities. It was their normal. Jacqui Patterson of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People described how when their Climate Justice Initiative goes into communities, local people often have not made the connection between their environment and their health problems, and they have not been made aware of these links by their healthcare providers.4
Bryan Parras noted: “People will say that these communities and the people who live there long will get used to it. ‘It stinks right now but you’ll get used to it.’ … No one should have to get used to having a headache everyday. No kid should have to get used to having a bloody nose. That’s not a normal situation.”5
In Canada and the US, many activities that contribute to climate change take place on native lands and in or near areas where poor people and people of color live. Often these communities receive little or no benefit from these power plants, refineries or other activities that pollute their environments. In Arizona and New Mexico two coal plants have impacted Navajo people for many years. Nellis explained that “[t]he power that comes from those coal plants is actually sent off to places like Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Albuquerque, and it doesn’t actually stay on the reservation itself. In fact, a good portion of the Navajo reservation doesn’t have electricity…or running water for that matter. So the people who live in the shadow of these coal plants [are] not reaping the benefits of the power that’s actually being generated on the land.”6
These activists drove home a greater point: even though we all seem to be divided into distinct groups—native, black, latino, aboriginal, white—our struggles are similar and have uniting aspects. We are facing huge corporations who value profit over people. We are suffering health consequences from activities we oppose and that are destroying our environment but we seemingly have no power to stop. We cherish our environment and this planet and want to preserve it for future generations.
In our work to combat climate change at national and international levels, we must continue to elucidate the experience and voices of local people who are on the front lines of this struggle, suffering the immediate impacts of climate change and the activities that drive climate change. The experiences of everyday people who are activists, members of community organizations, and civil society shine a bright light on the present health and human rights impacts of climate change. As we work to bring research, policy, and political discussions on climate change and health to the highest levels, our combined voices must rise just as high.
Leigh Haynes is a lawyer and public health researcher. She’s a member of the People’s Health Movement global steering council and helps coordinate People’s Health Movement activity in the US.
* This blog post has been corrected – Nellis Kennedy-Howard did not grow up on the Navajo Reservation but her family is from the Reservation
1 Haynes, Leigh. PHM North America Hosts Webinar Series on Climate Action, 13 July 2015, http://www.phmovement.org/en/node/10025
2 Doug Brugge, Jamie L. deLemos, and Cat Bui, The Sequoyah Corporation Fuels Release and the Church Rock Spill: Unpublicized Nuclear Releases in American Indian Communities, American Journal of Public Health 97, no. 7 (2007): 1595-1600. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2006.103044
3 Smith, Sarah. EPA announces final rule to curb refinery pollution and improve public health. Texas Research & Policy Center press release. 29 September 2015, http://environmenttexascenter.org/news/txe/epa-announces-final-rule-curb-refinery-pollution-and-improve-public-health
4 29 September 2015. Climate Action: race, health, and climate justice. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/s13WZmT3Nts?t=26m24s
5 23 July 2015. Climate Action: race, health, and environmental justice. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/fsnCFI6AtuM?t=30m45s
6 23 July 2015. Climate Action: race, health, and environmental justice. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/fsnCFI6AtuM?t=30m10s