Life and Death in the Climate Change Debate

Elisa Young brushed her feathery blond hair back from her face, and her eyes grew teary as she looked at the panel of environmental activists and asked, "How do you keep up the fight under such difficult circumstances?" Young, who describes herself as a "survivalist, not an environmentalist" is a seventh-generation Appalachian and has been fighting coal-plant proposals in Meigs County, Ohio, for years.

LaDonna Redmond, a statuesque African American woman from Chicago, responded immediately, "You just keep fighting. What else are you going to do?" She recalled her own struggle with neighborhood gang-bangers who didn't want her to open an organic food market in their area. She concluded with one of her trademark sayings: "Every community has the intellect to heal itself."

Their exchange stands in stark relief to the current conversation about the environment in Washington. The House spent last week arguing over the specifics of the pending climate legislation, which is now headed to the Senate. Will it be done in time for the big meeting in Copenhagen so the U.S. can rescue its reputation? Are the standards high enough? Low enough? What else can be squeezed in to please constituencies and campaign funders?

While politicians, lobbyists, scientists, and big green groups continue to play tug-of-war with the bill, Young and Redmond will be at the grass roots, like so many other community activists and organizers throughout this nation, advocating tirelessly day in and day out for the very survival of their people.

As I listened to their exchange at a recent summit of Midwestern environmental activists in Detroit, Michigan, I couldn't help but think about the rarity of this connection. Under what other circumstances would Elisa Young and LaDonna Redmond not only cross paths but swap stories of parallel struggle and resilience? They wouldn't. Period.

Environmental concerns, tied in with economic recession, have become the great equalizers of our time. For those on the ground, they are not a matter of trendy green packaging or of long-term improvements to our national energy policies but an acute crisis of health and safety.

Nia Robinson, director of the Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative, explains the urgent feeling at the grass roots: "Communities in New Orleans and Detroit and Meigs County aren't worried about Copenhagen. We're making sure that there are no hot spots, that there are real reductions in emissions, that money is being put back into our communities, that we're investing in solutions that not only break our dependence on foreign oil but on fossil fuels period. Issues around climate change for us are life and death. They go past urgency to the well-being of our children."

Indeed, Redmond became interested in food politics after watching her son's health deteriorate from a combination of food allergies. Tired of feeling helpless to soothe his suffering, she began researching alternatives to the foods she'd grown up eating in the inner city and became an evangelist about food justice.

"When Wade was born, my life totally changed," she says of her son's birth in Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots. "I was responsible for this human being. I saw my job as protecting him from the evils of the world. I had never looked at myself in that way before." Redmond would go on to become the president of the Institute for Community Resource Development, which aims "to rebuild the local food system."

Young, likewise, became a "survivalist," not because going green is the hip thing to do but because she has had cancer herself and has seen neighbors in her tiny 800-person village die from brain, breast, lung, and skin cancer -- one right after the other. When she began researching, she realized that the industry that her family had been economically dependent on for years -- coal -- was also killing them. "There's a lot of denial involved," Young explains. "How do you admit that your job is going to kill you? That your job is going to give your kids learning disabilities? You have to put on those blinders so you don't go insane."

Young took off the blinders and did more research. In the process, she learned that Miegs County currently has the highest lung-cancer death rate and the lowest life expectancy rate in Ohio. USA Today recently reported that the county ranks in the top third percentile for the worst air quality in the nation. In response, Young founded and runs Miegs Citizen Action Now, which works for economic and environmental justice in Southeast Ohio.

There is no question that we are at a do-or-die crossroads when it comes to climate change, and it's going to take a worldwide effort to reverse the warming and toxifying of the planet we all share. It's not that federal and even international policy isn't critical. But in the midst of all this hemming and hawing over legislation, it's important to remember that there are women like Redmond and Young on the ground, so different and yet so alike in their never-ending search for environmental justice. They, not Nancy Pelosi or Henry Waxman, are the real faces of the sea change we are all riding on.

Whether the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 passes or not -- and let's hope like hell that it does -- the grass-roots activists will be at home, in their communities, fighting because their lives literally depend on it.