Want to save the planet? Listen to those closest to the pain

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Several years ago, my doctor had given me less than a year left to live.

I was suffering from severe respiratory illness as a direct result of environmental factors unfairly foisted on black and Latinx communities in Buffalo. As a single mother, I raised my son in a home we owned on the West side of Buffalo. We lived near the Peace Bridge, an international commercial crossing for trucks and vehicles traveling between the U.S. and Canada — I had been breathing in diesel emissions for decades. 

The back of the roof of our house had partially collapsed, allowing black mold to permeate the walls and HVAC system, further exacerbating my health problems. And like many buildings in Buffalo, which has some of the worst housing stock in the nation, my home had no insulation. For years, I had suffered through cold winters and astronomical utility bills. 

My situation was not unique. In Erie County, cancer risk from hazardous air pollutants is 38 percent higher for people of color compared to white people, and exposure to air polluting facilities is approximately 2.8 times greater for people of color. These patterns are true throughout the country. This is environmental racism. 

Communities like mine are also uniquely vulnerable to climate change. A generally warming planet has increased the temperatures of Lake Erie, which means greater amounts of lake effect snow in Buffalo every winter. Additional snow plus poor housing stock leads to more leakage, more mold, and more breathing unhealthy toxins that worsen existing illness. We don’t have thousands of dollars lying around to make repairs. When we say climate injustice, this is what we mean.

I worked with PUSH Buffalo, a grassroots community organization on Buffalo’s west side, to repair my home and remove some of the environmental factors contributing to my illness. I went from four doctors down to two, and 12 medicines down to four. I started attending PUSH meetings, learned more about environmental racism and co-founded PUSH Silver which fights for rights and resources for senior residents of Buffalo. I’ve travelled throughout the state and the country to fight for environmental, climate, and housing justice.

I’m not an expert in technocratic policy, but I am an expert on my own life. My community and I live on the frontlines of the climate crisis, and we know what we need where we live. 

If we do not listen to frontline communities, all we will be left with are false solutions to the climate crisis. Fewer and fewer members of the richest and most powerful among us will protect themselves and leave everyone else behind. Buffalo has been listed as a “climate refuge,” because our temperatures will remain (relatively) cool as the crisis worsens. But without leadership from frontline communities like mine, the wealthy will move to our communities, displace long-term residents and create bigger and bigger zones that leave long-term residents, poor people, people of color, working people, youth and seniors vulnerable. 

The people closest to the pain should be the ones empowered to drive the solutions. Technological experts can sit in a room and come up with a plan to increase resiliency and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, or we can look to the frontlines and the people already doing it. That’s what we’re doing in New York, and that’s what climate justice is all about. 

New York state shows that it’s possible to write and pass climate policy that puts justice and equity at the center. In 2014, a coalition of climate, justice, multi-issue, environmental and frontline community groups came together to form the NY Renews coalition to turn the energy of the People’s Climate March, the largest climate mobilization to date, into concrete and meaningful policy action. Through meetings, town halls, gatherings and conversations throughout the state, as well as the consistent leadership of frontline organizations, we were able to write and push for climate legislation that began to address root causes of the climate crisis in a holistic way. 

New York’s new climate law leads the nation not just because it has the strongest emission standards in the country, but because it requires significant spending in frontline communities — a goal of 40 percent of New York State’s climate and energy funds must go to communities most impacted by the crisis. 

This spending requirement doesn’t detract from our state’s other climate goals. Years of segregation, redlining, gentrification and other racist policies have led to the most polluting infrastructure being sited in low-income communities of color. As we transition from smog-belching power plants to community-owned solar, from congested superhighways to reliable, accessible public transit, leaky buildings to efficient, affordable homes, it is only natural that our climate and energy money goes to the communities that for too long have been the hosts of polluting infrastructure. 

This is just the beginning. New York passed nation-leading climate legislation, but we’re only one state, and we’re far from perfect. Governor Cuomo released his state budget in January, and it does not meet the 40 percent standard of our climate law. And, we need additional dedicated revenue to turn the goals and mandates of the CLCPA into reality, which is why we’re pushing for a consistent source of revenue for climate justice with our sister bill, the Climate and Community Investment Act. But as we and our allies across New York State, the country and the world continue to fight to address the climate crisis, we must be led by justice and frontline leadership. The answers are here, if only we know where to look. We, the people, know what we need. 

Luz Velez is a climate and housing justice advocate in Buffalo, New York and one of the founders of PUSH Silver, a group that advocates for rights and resources for senior citizens in Buffalo New York. She is also a member of PUSH Buffalo, a grassroots community organization that mobilizes residents to create strong neighborhoods with quality, affordable housing, expand local hiring opportunities and advance economic and environmental justice in Buffalo.

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