BY: JIM IRBY
August 2016 was the hottest month ever — until it wasn’t.
Data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggest that 2016 and 2017 will be the two hottest years ever recorded, setting us on track to surpass the 2.7°F (1.5°C) warming threshold — identified by analysts as a dangerous benchmark — within the next few decades.
The local effects of climate change are already underway: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has reported an increase in heavy rainstorms in Pennsylvania and higher flood waters along the Delaware River.
As weather continues to change, each of us risks suffering the effects of extreme weather, food shortages and displacement as parts of the world become uninhabitable. But low-income communities face a greater risk than others.
“Poor communities really have the hardest time dealing with flooding, unusually intense storms, and also the really high temperatures in the summertime that produce hardship for people who can’t afford air conditioning,” said local Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT) organizer Dana Robinson.
For the thousands of individuals living without stable shelter in Philadelphia, there can be no escape from extreme weather events. Without a place to cool down, dangerous heat can lead to heat stroke and dehydration and can aggravate cardiovascular conditions.
Yet as the world gets hotter, coordinated action from the United States — which, according to the World Resources Institute, is the country most responsible for total carbon emissions worldwide — seems unlikely. Donald Trump’s administration has made a willful rejection of the scientific consensus on climate change a matter of policy. In June 2017, his highly publicized withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord — a globally adapted agreement which sought to keep climate change below catastrophic levels — was met with resistance by scientists and activists alike.
In the absence of leadership from above, local solutions are needed. In June, Mayor Jim Kenney joined 135 other mayors in committing to transition their cities to 100 percent clean energy by 2035. This ambitious announcement represents a crucial step to local leadership in the battle for our future. Yet it is unclear how it will be implemented, and to what extent those most impacted by climate change and environmental injustice will be called upon to guide the way forward.
Suggestions for how these questions could be answered already exist. Here, organizers from three local grassroots groups speak out on their visions for reducing emissions, addressing climate change and building environmental justice.
Philly Thrive: The right to breathe
While the Pennsylvania state constitution (Article 1, Section 27) promises citizens “the right to clean air,” Philadelphians have long been denied this right. Philadelphia air quality regularly scores an F on its annual report card from the American Lung Association, and one in five children in the area has asthma, twice the national average.
Members of Philly Thrive, a community organization that unites Philadelphians in the fight for clean air, have rallied around the “right to breathe” as their call to action.
Philly Thrive was formed in 2015 to provide a voice to low-income neighborhoods and offer a particular analysis of environmental justice in Philadelphia. Toxic emissions and the illnesses they cause are measurably more concentrated in communities inhabited by low-income individuals and by people of color. For those living on the “fence lines” of dirty industry, transitioning to clean energy is not just about the long-term impacts, but about fighting back against an economic system that has justified poisoning certain communities in the name of making a profit for shareholders.
To Thrive members, environmental justice means standing up to systemic environmental racism and making sure that those who are most affected by the problem are crafting the solution.
Thrive’s campaign identifies Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) South Philadelphia refinery as a major source of air pollution and a violator of the federal Clean Air Act. The detrimental effects of PES massive smokestacks, which rise above the city skyscape, have had detrimental effects, according to a report written by Brian Ratcliffe and Eleanor Hyun.
Zalaka Thompson is an active Thrive member who lives across the street from the refinery. Her son, Zakah, suffers from asthma. For Thompson, “living near the refinery for me is living cautiously every day. We experience gas smells and foul odors every other day,” she said. “Having a teen son with asthma means watching him play, keeping his pumps in arm’s reach, and sometimes avoiding going outside.”
Philly Thrive’s first campaign ended last November with a significant victory for the young organization: It helped stop the refinery from expanding into Southport. Building on that success, it now aims to engage community members, especially those living near the refinery, in deciding what the city’s energy future should be.
“Philadelphia needs bold announcements like the [100 percent clean energy] one Mayor Kenney made,” wrote Ratcliffe and Hyun. “But we also need to be listening to the quieter voices in our midst that are so often drowned out. Philly Thrive’s #WeDecide campaign is doing what the city so far has not: directly engaging marginalized Philadelphians in dialogue about what they want their energy future to look like. Those who have been most negatively impacted by today’s energy infrastructure deserve to be first in line as we dream for tomorrow, and the first to receive the benefits when tomorrow comes.”
For Thompson, the campaign is about “how to help [community members] be the voice of the people, instead of politicians.”
What does it need to succeed? “People power,” Thompson said. “If we get the whole community of South and Southwest Philly together,” change will follow.
350 Philadelphia: Fossil-free SEPTA
Public transit can play a crucial role in emissions reduction by taking cars off the road. Mitch Chanin, who organizes with the Philadelphia chapter of the global environmental justice group 350.org explained, “I think it’s really important to improve and expand public transit as a key element of building a just city … and an economic system that’s sustainable.”
As a daily SEPTA rider, Chanin feels strongly that SEPTA should be the best agency that it can be.
“I think we need our local governments and public agencies to take the lead in promoting clean air, green jobs, and a just transition to renewable energy,” he said. “And we need to hold our public agencies accountable.”
350.org Philadelphia’s Fossil Free SEPTA campaign was designed with this kind of accountability in mind. The campaign launched when SEPTA announced plans to build a natural gas power plant in the Nicetown neighborhood. 350.org members argue the plant is unnecessary and financially unsound, since the price of natural gas is projected to rise during the years the plant would operate.
Most importantly for community members, this plant represents yet another environmental injustice in a neighborhood “already really overburdened with air pollution and with related illness,” Chanin said.
Situated between a SEPTA diesel bus depot and the Roosevelt Expressway, Nicetown’s ZIP code has a 31 percent childhood asthma rate. 19140 also boasts the highest rate of children hospitalized for asthma in the city.
While it is hard to predict the added effect of one more source of pollution, Chanin argued, “when you already have so much air pollution, you shouldn’t add any more.” Moreover, SEPTA refuses to investigate the potential effects of ultra-fine particulate pollution, which 350.org members believe could be particularly harmful to people’s health.
350.org’s campaign has focused on mobilizing people to put the pressure on key officials, calling on them to act to stop the plant. After past actions urging Nicetown’s Councilwoman Cindy Bass to block the power plant resulted in her rejection of the plant in a letter to SEPTA, the current focus has shifted primarily to Mayor Kenney. The mayor appoints two representatives to the SEPTA board.
“We’re really glad that [Mayor Kenney has] stated support for the goal of 100 percent clean renewable energy,” Chanin said. “A key step towards achieving that goal is to stop building new fossil fuel infrastructure — and this gas plant is a prime example.”
While SEPTA continues to press forward, 350.org’s vision is far from blind idealism. Transit agencies across the world are already setting ambitious targets for renewable energy — including a commitment from San Francisco, California’s Bay Area Rapid Transit to reach 100 percent renewable by 2045.
Chanin also draws inspiration from successful struggles to block gas plants: “We’re seeing that in other cities, different entities are stepping back from plans to build gas plants when there’s public pressure.” Toronto, for example, rejected a gas plant in the face of public protest and opted instead to build a new battery to power their light rail.
While it is yet uncertain whether Philadelphia will follow in the footsteps of these cities leading the way in energy innovation, 350.org is determined to keep the pressure on. In the words of 350.org’s founder and veteran climate activist Bill McKibben: “When we fight, we win.”
Earth Quaker Action Team: Power local green jobs
EQAT won its first victory in 2015 when it pushed PNC Bank to stop financing mountaintop removal coal mining, said longtime volunteer Robinson. Since then, it has taken on a corporation that nearly everyone in Philadelphia is familiar with: PECO.
“We see a general systemic need for corporations to be more responsive to the needs of society, the needs of people, environmental needs,” Robinson said. “In EQAT, we focus on being a ‘pusher group’ that can actually push corporations to do things that they ordinarily would not choose to do.”
In the case of PECO, EQAT and its partner in the campaign, POWER(Philadelphians Organized to Witness Empower and Rebuild) are pressuring the company to source 20 percent of its electricity from solar by 2025. Currently, according to Robinson, “we are well under one percent.”
An increase in solar energy would undoubtedly make a difference in reducing carbon emissions and cleaning the air, but to EQAT members, it offers an additional opportunity: “It turns out,” Robinson said, “that renewables are a very significant engine for job creation.”
Accordingly, EQAT is pushing PECO not only to rely more on solar power but “to rely on rooftop solar panels that would be installed by residents of low-income communities.” EQAT projects that thousands of jobs could be created by investing in rooftop solar — jobs that could go to local neighborhoods where unemployment is highest, and that could provide a gateway into long-term employment.
“The transition to a smaller carbon footprint involves a lot of planning,” Robinson said. “It’s really important in that planning and in that transition process to include low-income communities where there’s a need for green jobs.”
EQAT is pushing for this change through a series of creative nonviolent direction actions, including a 100-mile Walk for Green Jobs and Justice last May that traveled through the five counties that PECO services. Their actions serve to dramatize the issue draw attention to PECO’s inertia. Moreover, for an organization grounded in a sense of spirituality, these actions can create spaces for people “to feel connected with each other, and safe with each other, and energized by each other.” For Robinson, “that creates hope, and determination, and staying power, and courage on the part of the people that are involved.”
That staying power can be crucial when fighting protracted campaigns such as this one, where concessions have so far been limited.
Robinson believes the combination of escalating pressure along with the invitation to be a leader in this transition may ultimately entice PECO: “There’s a lot of potential benefits for PECO to being active in solar, to be seen as a solar leader, to be seen as benefitting communities.”
Fossil fuels are one of the most powerful forces to have shaped human history. Only through fossilized energy, drawn from the earth, were we able to build the industrialized, globalized world that is such a radical departure from the planet our preindustrial ancestors inhabited. Only through this amazing outpouring of energy was our economy, food production and human population able to grow exponentially throughout the past two centuries.
And yet these local organizations focus on something potentially even more powerful: people power. The power of people to connect, mobilize, and create solutions may be the only force strong enough to meet the challenges that we did not anticipate when we first started burning fossil fuels — challenges that now threaten our very existence.
These groups operate with the assumption that when we organize, democracy can work, but only if we take the time to truly listen to each other and not just the loudest voices.
Moreover, they all have a couple things in common:
- They see climate change as a social justice issue, which, in the words of Chanin, “disproportionately harms the people who have done the least to create the problem.” Each of these groups propose a solution that seeks to remedy this by fighting against further environmental racism and working to address disproportionate environmental burdens.
- These groups have chosen a clear target — for each, a large corporate entity closely tied to the city. While moving these entities proves a continual challenge, in a world where less than 100 corporations are responsible for more than half of all global emission, real solutions to climate change must address the largest emitters head on.
Philly Thrive, 350.org Philadelphia and EQAT represent organizations doing just that — addressing the energy infrastructure where they believe they can affect the greatest changes. As Philadelphia postures itself as a leader in the transition to renewable energy, these groups offer a clear vision for how the next steps might look.