Ahead of Monday’s Brown and Black forum, event participants held a climate-focused panel calling upon local and national leadership to act on the issue that most often and disproportionately affects communities of color.
Mustafa Santiago, vice president of the National Wildlife Federation’s (NWF) environmental justice revitalization program, today in Des Moines is participating in the nation’s oldest minority-focused presidential forum.
At the climate forum, he spoke about Iowa legislators’ inaction on climate change, the presidential candidates’ plans for the crisis and working with allies across the state like NWF board member Dianne Dillon-Ridgley, Karin Stein of Clean Air Moms Action Iowa and Malik Russell with The Climate Mobilization, an environmental advocacy group.
“What we need is wholesale government response by decision-makers [against climate change], and at this point, any elected official who is resisting that, is virtually committing, to my mind, a crime against the communities,” Dillon-Ridgley said. “We need to be up and in arms and in their faces, saying ‘you have lost your authority.’”
All three panelists expressed contempt specifically with Sen. Joni Ernst, who despite the climate challenges Iowa has faced with extreme flooding, has been a “climate denier.”
Stein said it was “not OK” for Ernst to tweet ahead of last week’s presidential debate: “All the candidates in the #DemDebate in Des Moines tomorrow will tell us how much they support farmers as they pander for votes. But remember they all support the Green New Deal, which would devastate our ag economy and our Iowa way of life.”
“I’m not sure what’s on Joni Ernst’s mind … It baffles me. She is a bright, capable individual. She has a lot of experience and a lot of friends,” Stein said. “[Climate change is] no longer questioned by scientists. How can she still say she doesn’t know, how can she still say it’s not going to destroy Iowa’s way of life?”
Stein also spoke to environmental injustice in the state, specifically how Muscatine, “one of the most polluted cities in the whole Midwest,” has a sizable Latino population with children who are subject to breathing the pollution of several of the area’s electrical plants and factories.
“Whether it’s intended or not, inaction on climate has profound racist consequences,” Stein said. “It’s not acceptable for [Ernst] to say she doesn’t know the science behind climate change … What interests are paying for her opinion?”
Iowa’s inaction on climate change extends beyond Ernst, however. Russell, with The Climate Mobilization, noted that at the end of 2019, more than 1,300 cities around the world have declared climate emergencies, including New York City, Paris, Austin, Texas and Los Angeles.
“There are no climate emergencies declared here in Iowa,” Russell said.
Last June, Russell’s group worked with Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, among others, to introduce legislation in Congress that would declare a national climate emergency. The bill had more than 100 co-sponsors, Russell noted, but none from Iowa.
“This hurts Iowa in a number of ways because we believe that once our national government gets behind this issue, it creates a number of resources that will be available to states and cities to fight the climate emergency,” Russell said.
Dillon-Ridgley moved to Burlington 40 years ago from Massachusetts. During her career, she’s domestically and internationally worked on environmental issues, including being appointed by the White House to the U.S. delegation for the Earth Summit in Rio, The UN General Assembly’s special session in 1997 and the World Summit on Sustainable Development in South Africa, making her the only person to serve on all three U.S. delegations.
Dillon-Ridgley said she has insisted on continuing to live in the state because of her allies and the partnerships here.
“There are a large number of people in Iowa who understand these issues, who are ready to be allies and to work with the resources if we could just get our political officials to officially put those forward,” she said. “We’ve had far more progressive proposals made.”
One of the people who understands and works on climate issues is state Sen. Rob Hogg of Cedar Rapids, who Dillon-Ridgley mentioned has held “climate conversations” with presidential candidates ahead of the Feb. 3 caucuses.
The panelists applauded the current candidates for all having climate plans, but Stein encouraged Iowans to “follow the money” when it comes to commitment to climate change. Look at their past voting records, she said, what bills they’ve proposed or how much they’ve spent on the past.
At the end of the panel discussion, former state Rep. Wayne Ford noted his observation of black men from low-income communities “always coughing,” because of the environmentally unsafe industrial zones often placed near their neighborhoods.
“I’m going to talk about this tomorrow too, y’all,” Ford said. “In front of national TV.”
By Isabella Murray