Red state rural America is acting on climate change – without calling it #climatechange

One primary concern in rural areas: higher temperatures put strain on water and energy sources. AP Photo/Robert Ray
One primary concern in rural areas: higher temperatures put strain on water and energy sources. AP Photo/Robert Ray

Rebecca J. Romsdahl, University of North Dakota

President Donald Trump has the environmental community understandably concerned. He and members of his Cabinet have questioned the established science of climate change, and his choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency, former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, has sued the EPA many times and regularly sided with the fossil fuel industry.

Even if the Trump administration withdraws from all international climate negotiations and reduces the EPA to bare bones, the effects of climate change are happening and will continue to build.

In response to real threats and public demand, cities across the United States and around the world are taking action to address climate change. We might think this is happening only in large, coastal cities that are threatened by sea-level rise or hurricanes, like Amsterdam or New York.

Research shows, however, that even in the fly-over red states of the U.S. Great Plains, local leaders in small- to medium-size communities are already grappling with the issue. Although their actions are not always couched in terms of addressing climate change, their strategies can provide insights into how to make progress on climate policy under a Trump administration.

‘Deliberate framing’

My colleagues and I did a survey of over 200 local governments in 11 states of the Great Plains region to learn about steps they’re taking to mitigate the effects of climate change and to adapt to them. We found local officials in red states responsible for public health, soil conservation, parks and natural resources management, as well as county commissioners and mayors, are concerned about climate change, and many feel a responsibility to take action in the absence of national policy.

In terms of framing, using wind energy is a way to improve local air quality and save money on energy, while also reducing emissions from fossil fuels.
paytonc/flickr, CC BY-SA

But because it is such a complex and polarizing topic, they often face public uncertainty or outrage toward the issue. So while these local officials have been addressing climate change in their communities over the past decade, many of these policy activities are specifically not framed that way. As one respondent to our survey said:

“It is my personal and professional opinion that the conservation community is on track with addressing the issue of climate change but is way off track in assigning a cause. The public understands the value of clean water and clean air. If the need to improve our water quality and air quality was emphasized, most would agree. Who is going to say dirty water and dirty air is not a problem? By making the argument ‘climate change and humans are the cause’ significant energy is wasted trying to prove this. It is also something the public has a hard time sinking their teeth into.”

In order to address the vulnerabilities facing their communities, many local officials are reframing climate change to fit within existing priorities and budget items. In a survey of mayors, we asked: “In your city’s policy and planning activities (for energy, conservation, natural resources management, land use, or emergency planning, etc.) how is climate change framed?” The following quotes give a sense of their strategies.

“In terms of economic benefit & resource protection. This framing was deliberate to garner support from residents who did not agree with climate change.”

“We frame the initiative as: energy savings (=$ savings), as smart growth/good planning, and as common sense natural resource management. Climate change is only explicitly referenced in our Climate Protection Plan adopted in 2009. Most initiatives fall under the “sustainability” umbrella term.“

“We mask it with sustainability, we call it P3 (People, Planet, Prosperity)”

“The initial interest in climate change came about as a result of concern about the potential for poor air quality affecting economic development in the City. Air quality and climate change were framed as being extremely related issues.”

“Climate change is framed as one of several benefits of conservation measures. Other benefits of conservation, recycling, walking, etc. include it’s ‘good for the earth’ (regardless of climate change), healthful, economical, etc.”

The results show that energy, economic benefits, common sense and sustainability are frames that are providing opportunities for local leaders to address climate change without getting stuck in the political quagmire. This strategy is being used across the Great Plains states, which include some of the most climate-skeptical areas of the country.

Local needs and values

Every region of the U.S. will need to address practical questions of how states and local communities can reduce emissions and adapt to climate impacts. Under the Trump administration, it is likely any progress on U.S. climate policy will continue at these subnational levels. That’s why a variety of experts argue that we should encourage the types of pragmatic strategies now being employed by local leaders in red states.

In the Great Plains in particular, local officials are facing severe impacts from higher temperatures, which will place greater demands on water and energy.

Capturing methane gases from landfill can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and be a local source of fuel for power.
Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, CC BY-NC

In our research we found local leaders focus on regional and local issues such as drought, energy and flooding. These are problems that are tied to climate change, but are already a priority on the local level. And the sought-for improvements, such as energy savings, health benefit and flood management, fit well with local needs and values.

For example, Fargo, North Dakota mitigates some of its greenhouse gas emissions and created a new source of city revenue by capturing the methane from its landfill facility and selling that gas to the electricity company. The city trash is now providing renewable energy for local residents and an industrial facility.

Perhaps the question facing us is: Should we reframe climate change and other environmental problems to fit the Trump administration’s priorities with a strong focus on practical solution ideas? For example, Trump has stated that infrastructure projects will be a high priority. That could easily translate into fixing the drinking water crisis experienced by Flint, Michigan and many other cities where it is likely to happen; Trump has also highlighted mass transit, which could help reduce air pollution and carbon emissions.

With an administration eager to expand fossil fuel development and consumption, the outlook for federal action on reducing climate-altering greenhouse gases is dire. Given that, reframing climate change to address cobenefit issues seems a logical strategy, and we can look for local government leaders in red states to show the way.

The Conversation

Rebecca J. Romsdahl, Professor of Environmental Science & Policy, University of North Dakota

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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In Puerto Rico, environmental injustice and racism inflame protests over coal ash #PuertoRico

 

A five-story coal ash pile next to the AES electric power plant in Guayama, Puerto Rico. Hilda Llorens, Author provided
A five-story coal ash pile next to the AES electric power plant in Guayama, Puerto Rico. Hilda Llorens, Author provided

Hilda Lloréns, University of Rhode Island

For scholars like me who study environmental justice, it has been encouraging to see residents in Flint, Michigan and the Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota organize against threats to their homes and health. But elsewhere in our country, other struggles are happening out of the spotlight – and often dragging on for years.

In Puerto Rico’s south, protests are building over the disposal of toxic coal ash in landfills. Small-scale protests began in 2014, but opposition has grown. A recent demonstration drew an estimated 1,000 people. Protesters have been routinely harassed by police and arrested.

As a native of the island’s southeast, I have been following these developments closely. Historically this region has been a zone of human exploitation and natural resource extraction. In the struggle over coal ash disposal, poor and mostly black communities in Puerto Rico’s hinterlands are being forced to sacrifice their health and the health of their environment to support the island’s energy-intensive economy and lifestyle.

The AES coal-fired power plant in Guayamas, Puerto Rico.
Hilda Llorens, Author provided

This crisis illustrates two closely connected problems: environmental injustice and environmental racism. The first refers to disproportionately high levels of exposure to environmental risks experienced by some segments of the population. The latter describes cases in which those unequal impacts fall on communities of color. Both are factors in this conflict and reflect Puerto Rico’s socioeconomic history.

But even as locals fight these problems, there is one hopeful development: the spread of rooftop solar power as a replacement. Coquí Solar, a project initiated in a Jobos Bay community near Guayama’s AES plant, is working to define an alternative to the underlying problem – coal-fired energy – and find ways to achieve it.

A sacrifice zone

Like many places that struggle with environmental injustice, Puerto Rico’s Guayama-Salinas region along the island’s Caribbean coast is a low-income area with a high fraction of minority residents. The median yearly household income is US$15,000, and more than half of residents live below the poverty line. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 17 percent of people in the region self-identified as black or African-American, compared to the national average of 12.4 percent. (In Puerto Rico, large concentrations of black residents are a marker of poverty.)

The area has suffered historically from high unemployment and poverty rates. It lies far from the national capital, San Juan, and was highly dependent on sugar cane agriculture for many years. Because of this legacy, the coastal environment is especially valuable to residents. It provides resources that buffer them against local and global economic crises – much like resource-dependent communities along the U.S. Gulf Coast that face similar environmental justice struggles.

One recent study quotes a saying among Puerto Rican artisanal fishers: “Nos defendemos con pescado fresco,” meaning, “We defend ourselves with fresh fish.” Another study found that people in this region who made a significant part of their living from fishing in the ocean and foraging in the mangroves derived a sense of cultural identity and well-being from these activities, along with food and income.

Coastal mangrove forest in Puerto Rico. Mangrove forests provide habitat for many species of fish and shellfish.
Ricardo Mangual/Flickr, CC BY

The source of the coal ash is a 454-megawatt coal-fired electric power plant in Guayama owned by the utility AES that has been operating since 2002. The plant is adjacent to a Superfund site where Chevron Phillips operated an oil refinery from 1966 through 2002.

Throughout the area, former sugar cane fields, mangrove forests and oceanfront lands have been converted to housing developments, shopping plazas, manufacturing and power plants over the past 50 years. Residents thus already bear a heavy burden from development that has compromised their health and the natural resources that many rely on for their livelihoods.

Broken promises

The coal ash generated by AES in Guayama is known to contain high levels of arsenic, heavy metals and radioactivity. Under current EPA regulations, coal ash can be disposed of in surface impoundments and landfills, in surface-waste ponds or recycled into products such as concrete and drywall. These methods are widely practiced throughout the United States and other parts of the world.

AES pledged in 1996, before the plant started operating, that it would not deposit coal ash in landfills on the island. The company’s initial strategy was to ship thousands of tons of ash to two rural coastal communities in the Dominican Republic. But after local doctors reported increases in spontaneous abortions and birth defects near those areas, AES was ordered to clean up the ashes and paid $6 million in a legal settlement with the Dominican Republic’s Environmental and Natural Resources Agency.

AES then developed a construction product called Agremax, a filler based on coal ash. Some two million tons of coal ash were used throughout Puerto Rico to build roads, parking lots, malls and as fill in tract housing developments, including sites near public water wells, farms, wetlands and beaches. Alarmed by fugitive dust and other impacts, environmental groups sued. In 2014, lacking customers, Agremax was retired from the construction market.

In response, Puerto Rico’s Environmental Quality Board and the island’s public power company (which buys the coal plant’s electricity) allowed AES to reverse its pledge and deposit coal ash in local landfills. But according to the EPA, a majority of Puerto Rico’s 29 landfills are over capacity, and some are open dumps that do not comply with current regulations. The agency currently has legal agreements to close 12 landfills. In sum, the ash disposal controversy is worsening a landfill crisis.

Taking core samples at the site of a coal ash spill on the Dan River in North Carolina, 2014.
Steve Alexander, USFWS/Flickr, CC BY

Slow violence

The struggle over coal ash is rooted in colonial and economic policies that have turned Puerto Ricans into migrants, consumers and debtors over the past century. These circumstances illustrate what Princeton University’s Rob Nixon calls “slow violence”: a steady accumulation of gradual, and often invisible, environmental harms endured by vulnerable individuals and communities during capitalist expansion.

Southeast Puerto Rico was populated in the 18th century by enslaved Africans, and later free blacks and mixed-race individuals, who worked on sugar cane plantations. When the island industrialized in the mid-20th century, many workers left farms for factories, while others sought agricultural work in the United States. Massive migration to U.S. cities became a way of life for Puerto Ricans, and multinational corporations began to build facilities on empty agricultural land.

As a result of these processes, people in this part of Puerto Rico have little political or economic clout and are vulnerable to exploitation by corporations like AES. But they recognize that landfilling coal ash threatens the resources that they depend on, and are trying to end it.

A solar-powered future?

Residents of the Coquí neighborhood in the Bay of Jobos are working with scientists at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez to build and install solar panels throughout the community. If this initiative succeeds, it would be the first solar-powered community in Puerto Rico. Community volunteers will receive training in the hopes that they will be able to install and maintain the equipment locally. Perhaps anticipating this shift, AES has opened a solar energy farm on fallow agricultural land in Guayama.

Many other communities in places far from the public eye face what can seem like insurmountable obstacles in their own struggles against enduring environmental injustice and racism. Every case is unique, but as pioneering environmental justice scholar Robert Bullard argues, the central challenge is the same: providing equal protection to disenfranchised communities, and ensuring that their voices are heard.

The Conversation

Hilda Lloréns, Faculty in Anthropology, University of Rhode Island

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.