People & Policy — Who Really Holds the Power?

Rubbertown, KY, Waukegan, IL and Flint, MI all share the unfortunate fate of belonging to a group of cities infamous for environmental crises. Rubbertown is home to 11 chemical plants and has suffered from toxic air pollution for decades. Waukegan has toxic air and water, courtesy of three Superfund sites, two coal ash ponds and a coal power plant. Flint has just recently made national headlines for the water crisis that began almost two years ago.

What these towns have in common does not stop at environmental degradation; they are all home to mostly low-income families. Lack of health insurance and plummeting property values trap residents in a vicious cycle: the only way to escape the dangerous health effects is by relocating, and in order to leave town, residents have to quit their jobs and sell their homes at great economic loss, placing them in a crippling financial situation. Finding refuge in a new town will not come easy, either. Relocating under such tremendous debt and financial pressure will oblige these families to seek low-income housing — which often is located near the very types of hazardous industrial sites they fled from.

This is the foundation of the environmental justice movement: fighting the process that puts unfair burdens on the shoulders of our most vulnerable residents.

But what do Rubbertown, Waukegan and Flint have in common with Aboriginal peoples of Canada and the German energy revolution, and how are they all related to the U.S. Supreme Court?

No, this isn’t a six degrees of Kevin Bacon riddle.

Just days before the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the US Supreme Court ruled against the enforcement of the Clean Power Plan, the White Houses’ most ambitious attempt to reduce carbon emissions. The rule gradually limits the amount of carbon that a power plant can emit — it doesn’t target plants for closure. There is a very valid and heated argument about the economic impacts of the rule, but today our focus should be on the human impacts.

Waukegan and towns across the United States and Canada are familiar with the ever-present plume of smoke puffing out of their local power plant. But what is in that harmless-looking fluff? Arsenic, mercury and a sampling of other pollutants like lead and formaldehyde. The health risks of burning coal are not a secret. These pollutants cause heart disease and lung disease — asthma is quite common in coal towns — along with damage to eyes, skin, respiratory and nervous systems, kidneys, and the brain, any or all of which can affect learning, memory and behavior.

This would carry far less significance if there were no viable alternatives to coal — and if the citizens were opposed to those alternatives. But that’s actually not the case. Multiple polls conducted over the last few years have shown that Americans support the increased use of wind and solar energy, and place less importance on continuing to use coal. And three separate polls since 2014 have discovered that about 60% of Americans support the Clean Power Plan.

So whose voice does the US Supreme Court reflect in its ruling? Not the majority, nor the minorities.

This is another environmental justice problem, but on a more political level. How can residents of a city, state or country take their health and the health of their environment into their own hands?

We look to Germany and Canada for an answer.

Aboriginal peoples in Canada are no strangers to various forms of injustices, much like many indigenous communities around the world. They have lost their lands to oil extraction operations from oil sands and fracking, their water sources are contaminated with pollutants, their air is polluted with toxins. Mercury emitted from coal power plants is absorbed by the fish they eat and climate change threatens their food security and reduces the healthy expanse of forest and glacial cover.

Over the last decade, grassroots organizations and representatives of the various tribes like Crystal Lameman and Caleb Behn are speaking out, fighting back against the institutions and processes that violate their land rights. Their voices are being heard by the courts, the media, and the public. Both leaders are featured in upcoming documentaries, This Changes Everything and Fractured Land. Across Canada, courts have ruled in favor of Aboriginal peoples, given them control of their lands and resources. A recent article in the American Journal of Public Health, Adapting to the Effects of Climate Change on Inuit Health, highlights efforts to use the traditional knowledge of Inuit people to improve climate change adaptation strategies.

In Germany, renewable energy use has been steadily climbing, now accounting for about 75% of electricity production. However, this did not happen because of national policy changes. Over the last couple of decades, the German citizens have called for a switch to alternatives to nuclear energy and oil. Throughout these decades, individual citizens and citizen associations have made enormous investments into renewable energy. Ultimately it was not policies or politics, but the will of the citizens that turned Germany into a blueprint for transitioning away from fossil fuels.

The outcome of the presidential race in the U.S. will have significant impacts on the future of environmental policy, and following the death of Justice Scalia, even more is at stake.

But honestly, it might not matter. The lesson we can take from Canada’s Aboriginal peoples and the citizens of Germany is that we don’t have to — and probably shouldn’t — rely on national authorities to make the changes we want to see. Residents in towns like Waukegan, Flint and Rubbertown must continue to speak out and fight for authority in their communities. The people of this country have all we need to bring about positive change — our voices.

Written in partnership with Milagros De Camps and Naazia Ebrahim