WASHINGTON, January 16, 2014 — February 11, 2014, will be the twentieth anniversary of the Environmental Justice Executive Order 12898, signed by President Bill Clinton in 1994. In the past twenty years, there have been many improvements for the field of environmental justice. The number of states that have a law or executive order on environmental justice has increased from four to all 50, and dozens of universities have created institutes and centers dedicated to environmental justice work.
Despite the milestones achieved by the movement, however, there is still a long way to go. Climate disruption and environmental contamination continue to have disproportionate impacts on communities of color, indigenous nations, and low-income communities.
As Christians, we are called to care for creation, seek justice, assist the least of these, and love one another. As people of faith, we have a responsibility to care for the poor and the marginalized. One of the most important ways the faith community can continue to strive for environmental equity and justice is by leading the movement on climate change, through issuing a moral call to action.
It is easy to dismiss climate change as something that won’t affect us personally. We have difficulty connecting our individual actions of driving a car or flipping on a light switch with the realities of ecosystem devastation, sea-level rise, and altered precipitation patterns. We think the realities of climate change will alter the lives of future generation, but not our lives.
However, climate disruption is already having a profound impact on marginalized populations, even within the United States. The Alaskan native village of Newtok, which is surrounded on three sides by the Ninglick River and is home to around 350 Yup’ik Eskimo, could be completely underwater by 2017 due to sea-level rise. The tragedy that will befall Newtok is not an isolated event. In fact, 184 out of the 213 native villages in Alaska are vulnerable to flooding and erosion.
Sea-level rise is far from merely a domestic problem. Low-lying countries and island nations, like Bangladesh and Kiribati, could become uninhabitable within several decades due to flooding and salt-water intrusion into the water systems. Tragically, the nations that are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change are often those that have historically contributed the least to global carbon emissions.
We cannot continue to ignore the threat of climate change when we have a Biblical call to seek justice in our world. Proverbs 31: 8-9 tells us to “speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” By protecting marginalized and vulnerable populations from losing their communities and ways of life, we can seek justice in a world threatened by climate disruption.
What would a realized vision of environmental justice look like? All people, regardless of race, class, or geographic location, would be included in environmental decision-making processes of addressing climate change. Every individual would be provided for and given the opportunity to thrive, no matter where they live or where they are located.
As people of faith, we must have compassion and empathy for those who will have to leave their homes due to drought or flooding, and realize that the effected people could just as easily have been ourselves, or might be us in the future. We should remember that whatever actions we take as a nation to mitigate climate change and reduce our carbon emissions should not be selfishly motivated, but be to the benefit of the least advantaged.
As February 11 approaches, the faith community must unite around the task of seeking justice in our world and should issue a moral call to action on climate disruption. Now, more than ever, is the time to demonstrate leadership on environmental justice.