From historic wildfires to record-breaking extreme weather, climate change is devastating our health and destroying our environment. Links between climate change and the pandemic have put BIPOC at far greater health risks than others.
COVID-19 has also exposed hidden health care disparities, environmental injustices and economic inequities in the United States. Black and Latinx people have been about three times more likely to contract COVID-19 than white people and nearly twice as likely to die from it. These competing crises ignited an urgent call to action to address climate change and environmental injustice.
Green the Church, an Oakland-based national environmental organization I founded, has been heeding the call for 10 years. With 1,000 Black church affiliates and faith leaders, we use advocacy and a three-pillar plan to take action on climate crises and environmental injustices.
The three pillars focus on amplifying green theology, promoting sustainable practices and building power for political and economic change. Our approach taps into the strength of the more than 30,000 Black congregations across the country and expands Black churches’ role as centers for environmental and economic resilience.
Green theology is at the forefront of addressing the disparities and environmental injustices faced by many Black communities. It is based on the interconnection of conventional and nontraditional faiths, green philosophy — which balances protecting the earth and improving health — and history. The Black church’s historical legacy is deeply rooted in civil rights and social justice activism. With nearly 80% of Black Americans identifying as Christians, Green the Church follows Biblical teachings calling on Christians to serve as stewards of the earth.
Sustainable practices — from making church structures more energy efficient to providing Black communities affordable access to renewable energy — empower and strengthen our communities. Green the Church works with member churches conducting energy audits to make sure church buildings and operations are sustainable. Because many Black communities exist in food deserts with limited access to quality, fresh food, we provide instructions on how to develop healthy food programs and community gardens.
At my church, The Church by the Side of the Road, we provide water stations to Berkeley bikers and are transitioning away from printed church programs and bulletins. Composting, recycling, using silverware instead of plastic utensils and serving lean, nutrient-rich foods during our congregational meals are part of our sustainable practices. We also plan to create an herb garden.
Access to clean energy is an environmental justice issue. While California has made progress in renewable energy development, a transition to clean energy has not reached all communities. Black and Latinx people living in California, especially in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, breathe about 40% more pollution from vehicles than white Californians. Black populations face asthma and upper respiratory diseases at disproportionately high rates, which is attributed to where they live, work, play and pray. These health disparities are all connected to climate change, pollution and environmental injustice.
With its history of redlining, West Oakland exemplifies the challenges our communities face. The area has higher concentrations of air pollution than others nearby and among the highest levels of toxic air contaminants in the Bay Area. Rates of asthma, cardiovascular disease, premature death and other poor health outcomes related to air pollution are higher there than in other parts of Alameda County. Efforts by resident-led, community-based advocacy organizations such as the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project demonstrate that access to clean energy is an environmental justice issue.
In Black churches, protesting against exposure to pollution and advocating for civil rights policies are not new. From Martin Luther King Jr.’s support of the Memphis sanitation strike to the 1982 church-supported protests against the hazardous waste landfill in a Black community in Warren County, North Carolina, the Black church has often joined hands with other faith traditions and used its power and moral leadership to act on environmental changes.
Our congregations’ and communities’ abilities to improve health and prosperity is tied to our ability to build political power that shapes local, state and federal policy decisions. Since Green the Church’s inception, we have supported a just transition to 100% clean energy and worked to mobilize pastors and clergy about the pivotal role the Environmental Protection Agency plays in climate change and environmental justice.
In December, the EPA celebrates its fiftieth anniversary. Yet given the actions taken by current EPA administrator and former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, combined with the more than 100 environmental rules President Donald Trump’s administration is reversing, there is little to celebrate. It appears the agency has ignored its mission to protect public health and the environment. And it has repeatedly ignored issues of environmental injustice.
The Biden-Harris administration already has a bold climate change plan, offering hope that we might begin to heal our hurting communities and steer climate action in the right direction for future generations.
With action, opportunities exist. Green the Church incorporates the strength of Black churches into a framework for environmental sustainability, using our power to fight for environmental policies that support equitable green economies and resilient communities.