By Striking for the Climate, We're Striking Against Poverty and Racism Too | Opinion

For over a year now, young people worldwide have been regularly walking out of school to demand bold action on climate change. Today and for the following week— from September 20 through 27—people of all ages are joining them for a massive global climate strike to demand that we take action on one of the growing crises of our time.

As leaders of the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival—a growing mobilization of people on the frontlines of our crisis of systemic poverty in the U.S.—we wholeheartedly support the call for an intergenerational climate strike in solidarity with this youth movement. We recognize the implications of the climate crisis and are clear that the evil of ecological devastation is directly connected to the evils of systemic racism, poverty and inequality, militarism and the war economy, and the distorted moral narrative that prevents us from adequately addressing these issues.

These young people understand all too well that they're inheriting a world plagued by these intersecting crises—and that the climate crisis, though it will impact us all, will hit the poor first and worst.

According to research we did with the Institute for Policy Studies, there are presently 140 million people in the U.S. who are poor or at risk of becoming poor — meaning, in addition to the 40 million already in poverty, there are another 100 million who are one layoff, one storm, one illness, or one divorce away from poverty.

At 43 percent of us, that's an astonishingly large share of the population in one of the richest countries in the world. People of color are especially affected—that 140 million includes 60 percent of the Black population and 64 percent of the Latinx population — although most of those 140 million are actually white, a fact that white supremacists who demonize poor people of color as "dependent" conveniently ignore.

The climate crisis has the potential to exacerbate that number, with estimates that the crisis could push 120 million people worldwide into poverty by 2030 alone. That could result in "climate apartheid," where the rich pay to avoid the effects of the crisis while the poor are left to suffer.

We are seeing these manifestations here in the United States already.

Over the past few years, we've visited Lowndes County, Alabama, where tropical diseases once eradicated are reemerging because of the lack of sanitation services and rising temperatures. We've spent time in St. James Parish on Cancer Alley in Louisiana, Crossett, Arkansas, and Africatown in Mobile, Alabama, where chemical companies profit from spreading poisoned air and water to those too poor to escape.

Meanwhile increasingly violent storms have been especially devastating for poor places like Puerto Rico, the overwhelmingly Latinx island with an official poverty rate more than three times the national average.

But not only does the climate crisis hurt poor people more, it makes them poorer. More frequent and severe droughts hurt agricultural production, costing farm workers — an already economically vulnerable population — their jobs. A study of the 2015 California drought showed that it led to the loss of 21,000 jobs, with half of them being farmworkers, precisely the people who can least afford to lose their jobs. And the wildfires caused by drought in California left tens of thousands more people homeless, adding to the already high numbers of homeless in that state.

The dirty fossil fuel industry that drives climate change has other harmful effects on the poor as well. For instance, fracking oil and gas and transporting them through pipelines poses serious risks of polluting surface water and groundwater. And when infrastructure such as pipelines are forced on communities, vulnerable communities — such as Native American nations — are targeted because of their perceived lack of political power.

It's obvious enough that the climate crisis will have a devastating disproportionate impact if left unchecked. What isn't well understood, however, is that the climate crisis is, in a very fundamental sense, a direct result of our deeply unequal society and a concentration of all the forms of systemic oppression that has been cultivated over the years.

Scientists have known about climate change for a very long time — certainly, by the time NASA scientist James Hansen testified to Congress in 1988, it was established scientific knowledge. Why, then, have our political leaders failed for decades to act on climate change with the required urgency? Because our political system values the profits of the fossil fuel industry more than the livelihoods, homes, and the very lives of the poor.

The original Poor People's Campaign of the l960s focused on building a multiracial movement to combat Martin Luther King's famous "triplet of evils" — racism, war, and poverty. From its beginning, our campaign to renew it has recognized ecological devastation as an interlocking evil demandingly an equally urgent response.

We recently launched a "We Must Do M.O.R.E (Mobilizing, Organizing, Registering, Educating) Tour" and are planning to bring thousands of poor and impacted people together for a Moral March on Washington in June 2020. But for now, as leaders of this new Poor People's Campaign, we say: to fight systemic poverty and racism, to fight ecological devastation, let's join the Global Climate Strike!

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II is president of Repairers of the Breach. Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis is co-director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary. They are co-chairs of the Poor People's Campaign.

The views expressed in this article are the authors own.​​​​​