Speakers: Black Catholics must act on climate change

By Michelle Martin
Sunday, November 15, 2015

Black Catholics have a mission to act on climate change, and they have a mission to do it now.

That was the message offered by environmental justice advocate Sylvia Hood Washington and several other speakers at the Black Catholic Initiative’s Nov. 2 conference on climate change at St. Benedict the African-East Parish, 340 W. 66th St.

“The consequences of climate change have a disproportionate impact on the poor and people who are disenfranchised in society,” Washington said to a group of about 50 people. “It’s the pollution that causes asthma. It’s the pollution that causes COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). If you know anyone with asthma, this is your issue. If you have diabetes, if you have hypertension, this is your issue.”

Washington is an environmental epidemiologist, engineer and environmental historian who has spent decades researching environmental justice issues, especially in the Chicago area.

It’s an issue of particular import in Chicago. She spoke about the impacts a changing climate has already had, including the 1995 heat wave in Chicago that killed 739 people. That doesn’t include the pregnancy she lost during the heat wave when her family home lost its air conditioning among widespread power outages, she said.

It also doesn’t include the people who die in increased violence during hot weather, violence that has been linked to the presence of lead in the environment and in the bodies of the perpetrators, she said.

“We are ground zero for asthma (in Chicago) and we are also ground zero for lead,” Washington said.

The six-state Midwest region where Chicago is situated is responsible for 23 percent of the carbon pollution in the United States and 5 percent of the carbon pollution in the world, said Howard Lerner, president and executive director of the Env i r o nme n t a l Law and Policy Center. Chicago, a major t ranspor tat ion and manufacturing hub in the Midwest, plays a huge role.

Most of those power plants, factories and highways are adjacent to low-income communities that are usually home to people of color, Washington said.

Speakers related the issue to Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’,” released June 18, which calls on all people to reject the corruption of God’s creation and to protect the earth.

“We are not God,” said Andrew Schwartz of the Climate Speakers Network. “The earth was there before us, and we need to love the earth as the earth loves us.”

Several speakers noted that there is hope for change, especially with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan that was released last summer. The plan includes incentives for states to cut pollution by emphasizing energy efficiency, especially in low-income neighborhoods, said Susan Hedman, the EPA Region 5 administrator. Improving energy efficiency would cut energy bills for consumers and could create jobs for people involved in improvement projects.

The renewable energy sector of the economy is also growing and adding jobs much faster than the economy as a whole, and that could benefit communities that are suffering from high unemployment, speakers said.

Ken Page, the Illinois EPA environmental justice officer, said the most important thing is for members of marginalized communities to speak up as decisions are made.

“Engaging the agency from people of color is very important,” he said. “To me, environmental justice means there is access for all people to have their voices heard. This is a civil rights issue. We are disproportionately affected as black folks and brown folks by environmental pollution.”

Brenda Bell, a parishioner at St. Ailbe, said she came both as a person of faith and in her role as community organizer for Chicago Public Schools in Englewood.

“We really have to reach out to all kinds of stakeholders,” she said. “I’m here because I’m personally involved, speaking to parents, residents, colleagues about environmental justice. It’s my responsibility as a Catholic to share that information.”

To read Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’” visit www.vatican.va.


  • laudato si
  • stewardship
  • enviromentalism
  • black catholics
  • st. benedict the african-east
  • st. ailbe

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