Pope Francis’ foray into the climate change discussion is a great blessing for the most environmentally disenfranchised people on the planet here at home in the USA and globally. As an African American female and Catholic environmental justice scholar and environmental scientist/engineer I have been part of a grim reality of the least amongst us being physically subjected to carrying the cost of modernization and development and throwaway culture. Environmental justice is the foundation of Climate Justice and is focused on how patterns of consumption driven by an ever changing and constantly evolving technological world produced voluminous unnatural waste streams like greenhouse gases, lead and mercury, dioxins, and oil spills that somehow seemed to be disproportionately dumped into the poor communities, with people of color, both locally and globally. The outcomes documented over decades have always been higher levels of asthma, cancer, miscarriages and learning disorders. The most horrendous of these outcomes was the actual degradation and mutation of the human genome. All of these environmental justice despairs were and still are tied to the causes of climate change (industrial development), yet until now we have not had a world leader like the Pope who is standing up by writing an encyclical to stopping this maniacal march to destroying both people and the planet.
Environmental justice communities learned after over 25 years of grassroots activism and working with academics and well-meaning NGOs and local churches that having well intentioned outsiders who were not originally or even eventually part of the day-to-day communities were not the solution to their problems. The only true change, the life transformative changes, came about when members of these populations were directly engaged in the discourse and the problem-solving efforts. In other words the disenfranchised had to have a seat at the table. To do anything less meant the objectification and dehumanization of the very communities that were already being denied their true rights to a full human life.
As Catholics who support social justice and understand climate change and extreme weather events, we should learn from the struggles of the Environmental Justice community. Climate Change will and has devastated the poor, the “others” and those least amongst us (because of their race, national origins and gender). These people (and I am one of them) have already lived and or are still living in environmentally disenfranchised communities. Our bodies are the bodies at greatest risk from climate change, particularly heat waves and hurricanes (higher rates of asthma, obesity, heart disease) In the USA please remember the victims of Katrina 1200+ (African American and poor) and the 797 victims of the 1995 heat wave in Chicago (primarily poor and African American). And we have suffered the most from pollution caused by the fossil fuel industry, especially in poorer countries.
It would be sinful and shameful for Catholics not to bring their Black, Brown and non-white brothers to the table and empower them to speak about and for Climate Justice. In the year 2015 there are Black Catholics like myself who are trained in environmental science, sociology and history who can and are willing to be involved in a movement that will support and protect their lives and their part of God’s creation.
The Roman Catholic church has a centuries long history of helping and uplifting its brown and black people in the USA whether they were actually members of the church or members of the surrounding communities where parishes were located. From opening their doors for thousands of students of color to attend Catholic schools to evangelizing and encouraging conversion to the faith. The Pope’s upcoming encyclical offers all of us to again reach out to those who are different from us for the greater good of the planet and to support the least amongst us. Ours is a faith of compassion and conviction. Our faith recognizes the dignity of all life and this is our opportunity to active collaboratively across culture, socioeconomic status and race to build a future for all sentient creatures in God’s creation.