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The New Fighters for Environmental Justice


By A.W. Strawa

A new group of Californian lawmakers are focusing on the effects that pollutants have on human health and environmental justice.

The San Jose Mercury News recently published an article highlighting the ‘new Californian environmentalists.’ (See San Jose Mercury News, April 2, 2017.) These lawmakers are joining with climate change activists to change the dialogue of the local environmental movement. One key member of this group, Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella) says, “We are not talking about the extinction of polar bears … We are talking about people who can’t breathe.”

It is appropriate for these groups to be allies since there are well-documented links between increasing disease and climate change as discussed in a Scientific American article. According to a Harvard Medical School report, climate change over the coming decades is likely to increase rates of allergies, asthma, heart disease and cancer, among other illnesses.

These new environmentalists are buoyed by growing support in the poorer, minority communities they represent, communities that have traditionally been more afraid of the economic impact of environmental regulation. They are beginning to realize that pollution takes an enormous toll on human health and the economy. A Rand study conservatively estimated that failing to meet federal clean air standards caused nearly 30,000 hospital admissions and ER visits throughout California and cost more than $193 million over the period 2005–2007. This is only the cost of air pollution and does not include the effects of tainted water. Nor do these numbers reflect lost time and productivity caused by pollution.

This is a movement that we as Catholics should support whole-heartedly and have been supporting for many years. Recently the Catholic Climate Covenant and other religious organizations urged the Trump administration to embrace their “duty to protect the environment” because not doing so will have effects on human health as well as abandon our role as stewards of God’s Creation.

Despite these pleas, the new federal administration is moving at light speed to undo 50 years of environmental protections in the name of a more favorable business climate. At the same time the administration is defunding the scientific studies and monitoring that can show the disastrous effects of their short-sighted policy (You can read more about these policy changes in this National Geographic article.) In fact, the opposite can be true. The combination of high economic growth and environmental-friendly policy in California over the last several years demonstrates that good environmental policy need not compromise legitimate economic progress. (See California Economy and Climate Policy.)
In his Encyclical, “Laudato Si’: On Care for our Common Home,” Pope Francis asks, “What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” He calls us to “participate in public life” and “work for the common good.” As Christians and moral people of good will, we should support these legislators and work to see that good environmental policies remain strong throughout the nation.

A.W. Strawa, Co-Chair Catholic Green Initiative Office of Social Ministries for the Diocese of San Jose. Visit www.dsj.org/social-ministry for more information.