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Our Daily Planet: Exclusive Interview with Senator Cory Booker on Environmental Justice, and the tweetstorm in response to Trump's Earth Day message
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By: Monica Medina and Miro Korenha

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Tuesday, April 24th, 2018

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To celebrate Earth Day, we have brought you a series of topical stories that we hope will be timely, informative and inspirational.  Today's final special edition is dedicated to environmental justice.

"Environmental injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." 

Senator Cory Booker, October 23, 2017


Earth Day 2018: Senator Cory Booker Speaks Up

Today, in the finale of our special series in honor of Earth Day 2018, we bring you an ODP exclusive, one-on-one interview with Senator Cory Booker on the topic of environmental justice.  Senator Booker served as a member of the Newark City Council and then as the mayor of Newark until he was elected to the Senate from New Jersey in 2012.  Senator Booker brings an innovative and bipartisan approach to tackling some of the most difficult problems facing New Jersey and our country, including those involving air, water, and solid waste pollution.

ODP:  Poor and minority communities are disproportionately impacted by industrial and agricultural pollution.  Do you believe that clean air, clean water, and safe drinking water should be a basic civil right in our country? What would you like to see done? 

CB:  Clean air and clean water should absolutely be a basic civil right. People can’t thrive when they are worried about having to miss work because of a recurring asthma attack, or when they’re afraid to drink the water coming out of their taps. This is why I am so focused on issues of environmental justice in this country – because far too often, the people suffering from asthma and struggling with contaminated drinking water are from low-income communities or communities of color.
ODP:  EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has begun rolling back many environmental protections since taking office -- such as the clean power plan, the methane gas rule, and air quality standards for toxics -- and at the same time has had huge ethical lapses.  Is he fit to serve? 

CB: I believe that Mr. Pruitt should never have been confirmed as EPA Administrator in the first place. I wish I had been proven wrong over the last fourteen months, but time and time again he’s shown that he is more interested in protecting the interests of polluters than those of the American people. Mr. Pruitt should immediately step down or be fired.
ODP: You have introduced legislation to reform an agricultural conservation program that helps farmers adopt more sustainable farming practices.  What farm and ranching practices are you hoping to change and why? 

CB:  One of the key ways the federal government supports our agricultural industry is by providing funding for voluntary farm conservation programs, like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program or "EQIP." EQIP provides farmers and ranchers with federal cost-share grants to implement environmentally-beneficial conservation practices on working lands. Historically, only a fraction of EQIP funding has gone to conservation practices that the U.S. Department of Agriculture identifies as producing significant environmental benefits. My legislation with Senator Mike Lee of Utah would shift the balance of EQIP dollars toward practices that help farmers grow food in a way that protects surrounding water quality and soil health.
ODP:  You have said you plan to vote against Mike Pompeo to be Secretary of State.  Were his weak answers on questions concerning climate change a factor in your decision?  

CB: There were, of course, many factors that went into that decision, but I absolutely took into consideration his position on climate change and his lack of support for the Paris Agreement. I was in Paris for a part of the negotiations and I have seen how far astray we’ve gone from our leadership on this issues under this administration.  We know that climate change is already worsening environmental disasters and having a destabilizing effect on countries around the world. We need someone at the helm of the State Department who understands this, who is willing to advocate for action, and who understands the importance of the U.S. abiding by its international commitments.
ODP:  You are a vegan.  In a recent tweet, you said you did the "Snoopy happy dance" because the fast food chain White Castle now serves a veggie burger.  Besides probably being good for our health, why is this an important development for the environment? 

CB: Our current food system uses an unsustainable amount of land and water, and is a leading contributor to climate change. Consequently, this has opened the door for innovative, more environmentally-friendly alternatives. White Castle is the first fast food restaurant to offer the Impossible Burger—a delicious plant-based burger that is produced using far less resources. This is an exciting development for the future of our food system as sustainable alternatives become mainstream.

Thanks to Senator Booker for sharing his ideas and views with us on the importance of protecting our environment.  We are still smiling at the thought of him doing the Snoopy happy dance, but we are there with him on the topic of veggie burgers!  To hear him explain in his own words why he introduced his environmental justice bill, click here.  


Photo: Flickr

The Air We Breathe May Be Killing Us

Pollution in America is segregated, poor people and communities of color are often stuck living in places where air quality is far worse than what more affluent neighborhoods experience. But this environmental injustice goes even deeper, middle-class black families experience higher levels of pollution than low-income white ones.

However, a recent study has revealed that exposure to air pollution is even more dangerous than previously thought: exposure to air pollution in childhood may play a role in causing Alzheimer's disease later in lifeResearchers theorized that particulate matter increases the risk of Alzheimer's as it enters the brain through the gastrointestinal tract, nose, and lungs. The circulatory system carries particulate matter throughout the body and damages barriers.

"Alzheimer's disease hallmarks start in childhood in polluted environments, and we must implement effective preventative measures early," said lead author of the study Dr. Lilian Calderón-Garcidueñas in the University of Montana press release. "It is useless to take reactive actions decades later."

Why This Matters: According to the annual State of Global Air Report, recently published by the Health Effects Institute (HEI), long-term exposure to air pollution contributed to an estimated 6.1 million deaths across the globe in 2016. It also revealed that 95% of the world's population is breathing air that isn't safe and the poorest nations experience the worst of it. Poor people in America and around the world are least responsible for GHG emissions that cause climate change but have to suffer vastly disproportionate consequences. 


Flint Water:  Is It Safe?

The drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan has been the poster child for environmental injustice in America.  But according to the State of Michigan, which two weeks ago abruptly stopped providing the people of Flint with free bottled water, the tap water there is now safe enough to drink.  Governor Rick Snyder said in a statement that the local water in Flint has been tested and found to be safe for nearly two years.  The Mayor of Flint was given very short notice of the end to the bottled water program and was wary because the pipe replacement program is only about half completed.  As a result of the Governor's decision, a small number of Flint residents marched in protest on the state capitol several days later, and residents rushed to collect the last free water while it lasted.  

This comes on the heels of new information about the seriousness of the water problems at the time.  In February, the city learned that an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in Flint that killed 12 people and sickened at least 87 in 2014 and 2015 was also caused by the unsafe drinking water.  Scientists confirmed that these deaths were caused by low chlorine levels in the municipal water system and linked the bacterial disease to the city’s broader water crisis.

Why This Matters:  The Detroit News supports ending the bottled water program now that
 the tap water tests clean.  They argue that to continue to buy water that is not needed is a waste of taxpayer funds.  However, the public in Flint still does not trust the government on the water's safety.  Flint Mayor Karen Weaver is trying to convince Gov. Rick Snyder to continue the bottled water program — at least until the end of the year when Snyder leaves office. “We’re trying to re-establish trust when trust has been broken in the city of Flint,” she said in an interview with The Detroit News.  Not to mention that water in Flint is expensive and many residents will lose their access to water because they cannot afford it.  


 Migrant field hands picking watermelon at a Texas farm. Photo: Jacob Ford/Odessa American

The Human Cost of Climate Change in America 

The Rio Grande Valley of Texas grows a lot of our nation's food, and even in a red state, the farmworkers who toil in fields to supply produce to our grocery stores are quick to acknowledge that climate change is responsible for making their lives more difficult. E&E News reported that the residents of this borderland have an unusually high level of concern about climate change. Hidalgo County is home to the largest percentage of people in Texas who accept that climate change is happening and 71 percent of county residents are concerned by it according to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. That's 4 points higher than in Travis County, home to liberal Austin.

As climate change intensifies heat waves and drought and helps spread diseases carried by mosquitoes, the life of a farmworker in this fertile part of Texas is getting harder and more dangerous. The heat is cutting into work hours by making it too hot and physically impossible to work in the fields. It's also destroying some crops before they can be harvested, meaning less pay for workers who already live at or below the poverty line. 

Farmworkers are one of the country's most vulnerable populations to climate change. Soaring temperatures and drought strain their bodies at work, but their living conditions also create stress as most live in sprawling neighborhoods called colonias that usually lack air conditioning and often even running water. Farmworkers work the fields in blistering heat, or stifling packing sheds with metal roofs and then come home to dwellings where their bodies can't cool down. Exposure to sustained heat stress not only causes dehydration and heat stroke but is also causing a surge in kidney failure in farmworkers around the world. 

Why This Matters: This story is a stark reminder that there is a human cost associated with the readily available fruits and vegetables in our grocery stores. The millions of men and women (and even children in some cases, watch actress and activist Eva Longoria's film The Harvest to learn more) who work tirelessly in the fields have very little political power and their stories are often forgotten. Meanwhile, average temperatures in the Rio Grande Valley are only expected to rise--where back in 2011 there were already 100 days with 100 F+ temperatures. If crops fail, farmers have crop insurance but vulnerable workers simply don't get paid


 Climate Change

Al Gore's Message To Young People

Yesterday Monica and I got a chance to hear former Vice President Al Gore deliver a lecture to students at Georgetown (and view his famous, and exceptionally thorough slide deck). While the bulk of his lecture was dedicated to explaining the global implications of climate change (check out our tweets from yesterday for more specifics) he ended with by "recruiting" the next generation to fight for a solution to the climate crisis. He added a particularly touching anecdote that we wanted to share:

In 1961 when former VP Gore was in his formative years President Kennedy announced to a joint session of Congress that America would send a man to the moon before the end of the decade. While many of Gore's parents' friends expressed that this was a frivolous pursuit and couldn't be done, young people in the 1960s were inspired by the challenge. Eight years later when Apollo 11 landed on the moon the average age of the mission control team was 26 years old, meaning that the young engineers were just entering college when President Kennedy made his declaration. This serves as a parallel to today when critics say that we can't possibly transition to a low-carbon economy and power ourselves off of renewables we should keep in mind that young people in America have a history of rising up to meet impossible challenges. 


One Funny/Sad Thing: Donald Trump "Celebrates" Earth Day

As the Huffington Post reported

President Donald Trump commemorated Earth Day last Sunday by applauding his administration’s efforts to roll back key environmental protections. 

Trump stressed the importance of preserving the “life-sustaining gifts” of “our magnificent land and waterways, abundant natural resources, and unique wildlife” in a White House statement but as always didn't fail to reiterate the false equivalency that protecting the environment costs jobs. 


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