“Our Negras are happy here in Mississippi. It’s the outside agitators causing the problems.” So claimed Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett in response to the Freedom Riders’ activities during the summer of 1963.
In the following year, Paul B. Johnson, Mississippi’s new governor, repeated the sentiment: “Our Negras are content, happy with the present situation, but outside agitators are manipulating them.”
In this 50th anniversary year of Freedom Summer, as we celebrate and honor the sacrifices of those who lived for, fought for, and in many cases died for the rights we have taken for granted, once again our collective well-being is threatened. This time the threat is veiled from view by a much more pernicious and insidious system of misinformation, disinformation, political, and sometimes even religious speech than we faced in the 1960s.
In 1963 and ‘64, the speech of the keepers of the status quo required very little dissection to uncover the truth about “our happy Negras.” Though carefully chosen to obscure the actual conditions, these words failed to disguise the unequalburden that Black people, people of color generally, and poor people bore in the U.S. in the 1960s.
In many ways, from an environmental-climate change perspective, the globalized world of 2014 has become a virtual throwback to the Mississippi of ‘64. Today, people of color and poor people in the U.S. and globally bear unequal environmental burdens that threaten our very existence. Parallel to their 1964 counterparts, contemporary naysayers promulgate a rehearsed pre-scripted refrain: “The verdict is not yet clear, there is no scientific evidence that supports the notion of man-made climate change.”
Simultaneously and from many stations within the communities of people of color and poor people, we hear the preternatural chant: “The environment is not our issue, it’s theirs….” Or perhaps, “What do I care about polar bears?” As both the climate deniers and those who claim no responsibility for or awareness of the challenges of climate change continue down the same path: the possibly cataclysmic problems worsening faster than any of the previous scientific models predicted.
Focusing solely on socio-economic deficiencies that plague our communities and continuing to believe that solving the problems of climate change can take a back seat – or be left to others or to future generations – is a pathway to human and environmental disaster.
The exigent socio-economic and dire environmental realities we face do not leave us with an “either or” option for action. When we look at the facts, “both and” appears to be our best choice.
On March 31, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report compiled by more than 3,000 top climate scientists and government officials from around the world. The findings were startling: Climate change is happening 60 years ahead of the schedule of even the most aggressive scientific models. Sea level rise plus changes in rain and weather patterns are causing more frequent and more severe storms and floods. These factors combine to threaten the most vulnerable populations, who are disproportionately poor and people of color.
The impacts include droughts, disrupted agricultural cycles, famine, and massive loss of human life, population dislocations, climate refugees and destruction of property at a heretofore unheard of scale. Though at times we may have a dispassionate and weak connection to scientific models around climate science, the evidence of the impacts on humans is constantly in the headlines.
In 2005, as many as 3,500 people lost their lives as a result of Hurricane Katrina. During 2013, super typhoon Haiyan caused more than 8,000 deaths in Indonesia, while more than 10,000 died from monsoon floods in India. There is internecine warfare in the south Sudan caused largely by a massive drought that has created 900,000 climate refugees.
As a result of severe drought in the American west, food prices have increased 6 percent in the U.S. and 13 percent globally, while the approved 2014 U.S. Farm Bill reduced access to food stamps for 850,000 American households via an $8.7 billion cut to the program. According to the World Bank, both in the U.S. and globally, the poor and the unemployed will be most impacted by the increased price of food.
By some estimates, as many as 4,800 African Americans were lynched across the U.S between 1882 and 1968, the epoch of the civil rights struggle. In contrast, according to German insurance company Munich Re, more than 20,000 people worldwide died from climate disasters in 2013 alone. Massive super-cell E-5 tornados have destroyed large sections of African American and other poor communities in Alabama, Massachusetts, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Oklahoma and others which would be far too numerous to cite. Between 2012 and 2013, climate-related property losses totaled over $400 billion. 2012’s Hurricane Sandy and the drought in the American West combined accounted for $100 billion in damage.
While we were paying with our lives, our food security and our homes, the primary producers of climate-changing greenhouse gasses were filling the corporate coffers. In 2012, extractive energy companies (oils, gas, and coal) and fossil fuel intensive energy producing businesses, such as electric utilities, made a combined profit of more than $350 billion. Today, if we believe the UN Report on climate change and we believe what we see with our own eyes, the stakes are much higher.
During the early 1960s, the shadowy White Citizens Council structured the strategy and then formulated the talking points for those whose rallying cry was “our Negras are happy.”
Today, for those who deny climate change and its impacts, the talking points, misinformation, and strategy of obfuscation is funded by a much larger, more organized conglomerate of those who benefit by maintaining the status quo.
According to Greenpeace International, oil industry billionaires David and Charles Koch (the same Koch brothers who have funded the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party) have quietly funneled more than $67 million to climate change denial front groups. These groups include scientists, ministers, phony think tanks, and invented grass roots organizations with two simple objectives: deny manmade climate change and protect the Koch brothers’ profits.
As we listened with discernment to the message crafted by the White Citizens Councils of the 1960s, we were yet called to action. No amount of disinformation could dissuade us. We knew the cause was ours; the issue was ours and the endangered species were us. Today, our call to action is just as clear and no less urgent.
Carlton Brown, the author, is the COO of Full Spectrum of New York, a regenerative real estate development company. He is a graduate of Princeton University School of Architecture, an adjunct faculty member at Pratt Institutes Graduate Planning Program, a board member of Global Green USA and frequent public speaker on regenerative development in disproportionately burdened and disinvested communities. He can be reached at email@example.com
Special to the NNPA from The Mississippi Link