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Climate change, pollution, cancer – environment is a justice issue

As far as Charity Hicks is concerned, climate change isn’t something coming in the future; it has arrived.

“It’s impacting,” says Hicks, policy director for the East Michigan Environmental Action Council. “It’s not just hot summer temps. It’s also the climate lows; it freezes people. Homeless people, senior citizens with dementia, they froze to death this winter.

"That’s climate chaos. The jet stream as we know it moderates our temperatures. It’s doing crazy stuff. The climate highs and the climate lows are already impacting the quality of life.”

EMEAC is the anchor organization for the Detroit Climate Justice Alliance, part of the national Climate Justice Alliance that grew out of a three year process of engagement between environmentalists, labor unions, food sovereignty/sustainable agriculture groups and other community-based organizations. It coalesced around the 2010 U.S. Social Forum in Detroit.

“The CJA is an attempt to mount a grassroots national campaign to affirm the quality of life and affirm the dignity of communities of color,” says Hicks. “The whole campaign calls for a transition to a climate resilient profile. We have politicians and scientists denying the existence of climate change. When you look at the loss of the glaciers, blue water in the Arctic, the permafrost lost. We know we are looking at a climate change scenario. The sea level rising threatens New York, Hong Kong, all these cities we love on the coast, because we like water, we will have to do climate mitigation work to survive.”

Hicks is a systemic thinker and while she sees the big picture globally, she can connect the big picture to issues in Michigan, Wayne County and Detroit. There are 65 Environmental Protection Agency high-priority superfund cleanup sites in the state. A Community Health Needs Assessment developed from 2006-2010 data compiled by the Center for Disease Control shows higher cancer death rates in Wayne County than statewide and national rates.

“Detroit has more than 240 facilities releasing toxic chemicals,” says Hicks.

Some of those toxic sites have been ceded to the city through abandonment and nonpayment of taxes. That’s a health, environmental and economic issue. It’s not the sort of thing most people think about when considering Detroit’s economic problems. But they are among the reasons business and developers chose other locations.

“The large factor is the overall drag on the economy that the large inventory of contaminated land has had on property values,” Guy Williams, president of Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, told the Free Press last August.

The great industrial boom that made Detroit, and Michigan, what it was a century ago has come back to bite us. And, as Hicks sees it, all as part of a bigger system that needs to change. Right down to the trash on the street. Climate change, environmental justice and food are all part of the same ball of wax.

“When I see food I also see energy, fossil fuels, water, pesticides, insecticides,” says Hicks. “Not just choice and the ability to pay. …Detroit’s energy grid is driven by the coal fired by DTE, some from Fermi, it’s dirty. We’re part of this blowing up of mountaintops in the coal country. Residential use of energy doesn’t even compare to industrial use.”

The Detroit CJA is composed of some 30 groups, such as the Detroit Food Justice Task Force, the People’s Water Board, Great Lakes Bioneers and others who work in different aspects of these issues. Hicks has taken it international, speaking at conferences in Tunisia, Brazil, Toronto and elsewhere. But, as they say, she keeps it real.

“Every day I walk my neighborhood near Seven Mile and Gratiot and pick up trash – Cheetos bags, blunt wrappers, liquor bottles,” says Hicks. “Every time I pick up litter I think about our people throwing it down. I feel sorry for the environment but I’m part of the solution. …Some of my neighbors call me the crazy African lady picking up trash. I pick up trash in Detroit. I like to celebrate solutions. We need to celebrate, call attention to it, and connect the dots.”

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