Climate Point: Black birders step into the spotlight, while oil scores more aid

Mark Olalde, USA TODAY

Welcome to Climate Point, your weekly guide to climate, energy and environment news from around the Golden State and the country. In Palm Springs, Calif., I’m Mark Olalde.

The world feels like it's on fire right now, doesn't it? Climate change, the coronavirus pandemic, police violence and now racial divisions spilling into city streets around the country. If you subscribe to this newsletter, you clearly care about the world, so this week we're going to talk about the intersection between those points.

Its name is "environmental racism" and it's a quietly pervasive, silently toxic thing. At first glance, climate change might seem indiscriminate. Hotter means hotter, and rising sea levels don’t leave rich, white resort towns alone. But look closer, and you'll see it. It’s in the maps of our cities, pushing black and brown people next to highways and factories. It’s between the lines of our history textbooks, which often don't admit that our national parks were born from their founders' white supremacist ideals. Even here, look up the headshots of the environment reporters I highlight on a weekly basis. My field has a problem, too, that we need to continue addressing through hiring, sourcing and more.

But, for our top story, let's explore some good news that came out of a negative event. Happy #BlackBirdersWeek, going on now! In response to a white woman calling the police on Christian Cooper, a black man who was bird watching in Central Park, an online movement began celebrating diversity among outdoor enthusiasts. High Country News published a Q&A with Sheridan Alford, one of the movement's organizers, who explains the importance of representation in the nature.

Let's continue digging into the topic....


Mustafa Santiago Ali is a leader in the environmental justice movement.

To answer that, it's useful to hear from someone besides me, a white journalist. So I called Mustafa Santiago Ali to talk about the intersection of environment and race. The grandson of a coal miner, Ali spent 24 years at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency before joining the Hip Hop Caucus and eventually taking the post of vice president of environmental justice, climate and community revitalization at the National Wildlife Federation. Here's our discussion, edited for length and clarity.

CP: What are we talking about when we're talking environmental racism and environmental justice?

Ali: In a very simplistic way, environmental racism focuses on the fact that everything that no one else wants in their community is often pushed or placed intentionally in communities of color, in lower-wealth communities and on indigenous land. That's everything from coal-fired power plants to waste treatment facilities to our transportation routes. ... What it's talking about is communities of color being the dumping grounds, but also those most vulnerable communities traditionally not having access to policy makers, their voices not being heard, their innovation and ingenuity not being included in the process.

CP: What are some of the concrete steps to start addressing these big problems we're talking about?

Ali: In relation to those large green organizations, there are immediate steps that can be taken. They need to make sure there's diversification of their boards, their senior staff and their hiring practices. They need to make sure that in their strategic planning, environmental justice is part of their priorities. ... In relationship to our brothers and sisters who are in the media world — and not just the reporters but also the folks making decisions on which stories are going to run — we have to make sure that we're diversifying that, as well, and making sure that reporters who come from these communities are given an opportunity to work and expand the portfolio of stories. ... I understand deadlines and the challenges that go with that space, but you also have to spend real time with people. If you want to be able to fully tell the story, then you have to fully understand all the nuance. ... Everybody has a gift, everybody has a blessing. Whatever that is, there is an opportunity for you to do it in an authentic way with those organizations that can use your support. ... Everyone, of course, who's 18 or above has a vote. How do we utilize that? Are we looking up and down the ballot?

CP: Is there a way to address climate change without addressing race? Or, why are those two questions so connected?

Ali: You cannot win on climate change — and I know this after two-plus decades of doing this work, getting closer to three decades — without addressing racism and environmental justice issues. And the reason for that is because when we look at where are the fossil fuel facilities, they are primarily located in those communities of color and those lower-wealth communities and sometimes on indigenous land. They are also one of the drivers in the emissions that are warming our oceans and our planet. ... We know that many roads were used to separate communities, extract wealth from certain communities, dump wealth off in other communities and leave pollution. But we also know that our transportation system is one of the main drivers in climate change. ... If we are not standing in solidarity, if we are not creating and enforcing the laws that are necessary to make sure we truly have a sustainable system, then we can never win on climate change, and all of that is rooted in environmental justice and environmental racism.

CP: What's the importance of something like #BlackBirdersWeek and shifting representation more to the fore?

Ali: Black Birders Week is so important, but also the dynamics that really brought that to people's attention. Once again, racism was a part of the equation, unfortunately. We had a lady in a park who decided to weaponize the police. ... The conservation movement and environmental groups sometimes forget — as we are fighting diligently to protect Mother Earth — to get people out, whether in urban parks or in other natural settings. For folks of color, lots of times that can be a dangerous situation. If you don't feel welcome in a space, you are much less likely to be in that space or participate in that space or give to that space.

CP: People have argued this type of conversation co-opts ongoing protests. Should we even be talking about this right now?

Ali: You have to engage with the immediacy of the moment, of course, but you also have to build a broader context for people to understand how racism has infiltrated all aspects of our life, of policy, of budgeting and of decision-making. And that's the beauty of the environmental justice movement because environmental justice is not just about the environment. Of course it's about public health, but it's also about transportation justice and housing justice. It's about economic justice. It gives you that intersection point.


And examples of these environmental injustices abound. Let's unpack a few.

Urban planning. According to Ali, one of the most egregious forms of environmental racism is a history of placing minority communities next to sources of pollution. Bloomberg reports on a new study, for example, that found pregnant women — often women of color — living close to high-producing oil and gas wells in California's Central Valley were more likely to have low birthweight babies. And the Investigative Reporting Workshop and E&E recently teamed up for a series called "Toxic Zones" that explored towns around the country experiencing such problems. In its second installment, the series showed how heavily Latino communities in New Mexico were exposed to carcinogenic toxins from a nearby refinery.

Public health. High levels of pollution in these red-lined communities are now mixing with the coronavirus pandemic. CityLab explored how Louisville has "the most polluted air of America's hundreds of midsized cities," but people living in largely black neighborhoods are twice as likely to have asthma as people living on the other side of the city, leaving them at risk of respiratory diseases. Meanwhile, Outside dug into the Navajo Nation's staggering per-capita rate of COVID-19, higher than New York City. The nation has a history of pollution from uranium mining and uneven access to running water, which can make things like hand-washing difficult in some households.

The green movement. The environment movement needs to properly address its racist past, as this compelling 2015 piece from The New Yorker explains. Earlier this week, environment journalist Emily Atkin expounded on the idea in her climate newsletter,  Heated, laying out "an insidious form of anti-Blackness within the climate movement." She tracked responses from green groups to the ongoing protests against the death of George Floyd and police violence and wrote that the movement has been slow to speak out. (Interested in learning more about that? Hot Take — a podcast/newsletter produced by journalists/commentators Mary Annaïse Heglar and Amy Westervelt — is also a good place to learn things like "how to be a non-obnoxious white guy in climate.")


Even as we talk race and even as the coronavirus pandemic spreads, day-to-day pollution and environmental rollbacks continue. Here's other important environment reporting from around the country.

Worth its weight in water. In a new collaborative series dubbed "Cash Flows," the Nevada Independent, KUNC, KJZZ and Aspen Journalism explore the emerging — and potentially frightening — world of big investors dipping their toes into Western water rights. While the ramifications are yet unclear, fears abound that scarce water resources along the Colorado River could be gobbled up by the highest bidder, leaving rural areas high and dry.

Protesting the environment. State laws have in recent years popped up to target protesters demonstrating against the expansion of pipelines transporting fossil fuels around the country. Now, a new bill in the Louisiana Legislature would increase penalties, and environmentalists have decried the idea. HuffPost has the story. Elsewhere, however, protesters — in this case, shareholders — have scored an environmental victory. Last week, Chevron's shareholders voted against company leadership and in favor of a resolution calling for an annual report on its lobbying expenditures related to climate change, the Los Angeles Times writes.

Waving at environmental reviews. The Washington Post reports that the Trump administration is continuing its deregulatory stampede by writing a new executive order to further waive environmental rules. Ostensibly aimed at aiding the country's economic recovery as states emerge from stay-at-home orders, the order would allow companies seeking permits to bypass laws including the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

More subsidies headed toward fossil fuels. The coronavirus pandemic is hammering Wyoming, as the state is heavily reliant on taxes and royalties from extractive industries that have seen their output slow in the face of a stalled economy. The Casper Star-Tribune reports that the state's Legislature is looking to temporarily cut in half the severance taxes imposed on oil and gas production. This action is the latest in a growing list of bailout efforts handed to Wyoming's oil and gas operators while the state's budget crumbles.


Nature belongs to whom? Talking about and celebrating diversity in the environmental movement is a start. But, we must continue moving forward, J. Drew Lanham wrote in a moving essay for High Country News, in which he explained what it's like to be a black man in the environment. "'Wilderness' was 'created' without colored people in any kind of positive mindset. Was this land really made for you and me?" he asked.

Thanks for reading. Scientists agree that to maintain a livable planet, we need to reduce the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration back to 350 ppm. We’re above that and rising dangerously. Here are the latest numbers:

The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere continues to rise.

That’s all for now. Don’t forget to follow along on Twitter at @MarkOlalde. You can also reach me at You can sign up to get Climate Point in your inbox for free here. And, if you’d like to receive a daily round-up of California news (also for free!), you can sign up for USA Today’s In California newsletter here. Don't forget to drink water when you're protesting. Cheers.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Climate Point: Black birders step into the spotlight, while oil scores more aid