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Civil Rights Activists Tackle Climate Change

Jun 25, 2018

Rev. Dr. Gerald Durley addresses a crowd at the 2018 AREDay Summit in Snowmass Village. Durley argues that climate change activists can learn lessons from the civil rights movement.
Credit Elizabeth Stewart-Severy / Aspen Public Radio

Communities of color and those living in poverty are more likely than others to be exposed to air pollution, toxic waste and water contamination than others in the United States, and studies show the impacts of climate change will also hit these communities harder. Environment reporter Elizabeth Stewart-Severy recently spoke with two men who have spent their lives deeply engaged in fighting for civil rights and are now tackling climate activism.

 

Rev. Dr. Durley has been many things in his life — a collegiate basketball player, a civil rights activists, a psychologist — but above all, he’s a man of God. In his opening comments on the first morning of the AREDay Summit in Snowmass Village last week, he asked a room full of climate activists to set down their smartphones, close their laptops and step outside of their comfort zones.

“I want you to do something very strange," Durley said. "I want you to touch, hold the hand of somebody near you. There is power in the touch.”

After some uncomfortable laughter, the crowd conceded, standing awkwardly and linking hands at arms’ distance. Then he led the group of scientists in a prayer.

 

“Help us to become one powerful force, seeking solutions to climate change and to forgive each other for our negligence,” he said.

As he spoke, the crowd leaned in, gripping hands and nodding in agreement, until he directed everyone to release hands and clap.

 

By the end of Durley's prayer, you could barely hear him over the raucous applause. This is not normal at a climate conference.

 

But Durley is setting out to change these conversations. He’s using his background as a civil rights activist and a spiritual leader to argue that climate change cannot be separated from civil rights.

 

"Everybody deserves the right to clean air, toxic-free water. That's a right, that's a civil right, that's a human right," he told the AREDay crowd.

AREDay CEO Chip Comins (left) moderates a discussion featuring Rev. Dr. Gerald Durley and Hawk Newsome.
Credit Elizabeth Stewart-Severy / Aspen Public Radio

This is an idea that most here can get behind. Hawk Newsome is brand-new to climate conferences, but he’s very familiar with activism. Newsome is the president of Black Lives Matter in the greater New York area. His daily work is focused on ending police brutality and mass incarceration, and he said before this, he hadn’t thought too much about climate change.

 

“This is definitely our fight. But it's not as immediate as others, 'cause you know, we're seeing people being killed," Newsome said. "So climate change, at times, seems a bit far off."

Newsome has learned a lot at this conference, and he's thinking differently about the immediacy of climate change.


"When you think about the communities that will be underwater. You look at Florida, those are black communities," Newsome said. "And when the sea level rises, and people are fighting for land. Whose going to be pushed off that land? Well, historically, it's people of color, and that will happen again."

Newsome and Durley agree that for meaningful action to happen around climate change, activists could learn some things from the civil rights movement.


“Enthusiasm!" Durley said. "Excitement. I told a group one day I was speaking, you're the dullest group, get up, say something!"

And, he said, climate activists have be prepared to give up some comforts and face stark realities of how change actually happens.  


“We were willing to sacrifice and risk," he said. "When you go up against some of those racists in Alabama and Mississippi, and you know that the dogs are barking outside and the water hoses, you have to [ask] what am I willing to risk?”
 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Durley said, as this movement grows, it has to diversify; it has to include more voices, from a far wider range of backgrounds and perspectives.

 

"Otherwise, you're just speaking to yourself, and once you begin to speak among yourselves, you think you're doing better than you really are," he said.

Durley is doing a lot of this work himself. He’s encouraging students at historically black colleges and universities to pursue degrees like environmental engineering and sustainability. He also chairs an organization called Interfaith Power and Light, which aims to educate people about what Durley said is a "moral mandate" to address climate change.

 

But scientists and environmentalists have to actively work to recruit more voices — and to address some its impacts head-on.


“The reason I don’t think the climate change movement has taken foot is because it operates apart from many of the people who are suffering from it,” he said.

Durley thinks this prescription - enthusiasm, risk and diversity - will work; to effectively combat climate change we all have to give up some comforts, reach for the hand of a stranger and make a little noise.