Two generations of environmental advocates warn of climate change urgency

Partner Content

Whether we realize it or not, climate change is occurring.

Climate change—the long-term shift in temperature and weather patterns—encompasses global warming as well as a broader range of phenomena happening to our planet. Rising sea levels; shrinking mountain glaciers; accelerating ice melt in Greenland, Antarctica, and the Arctic Sea; and shifts in plant life blooming times all are signs of climate change.

The effects include hotter temperatures, more severe storms, increased drought, loss of species, not enough food, more health risk, poverty, and displacement.

Human activity is the main driver of climate change, primarily by burning fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas that produce heat-trapping gasses.

Two advocates for environmental justice who often collaborate with Black Environmental Leaders (BEL), a Baby Boomer and a Gen Z, stresses the need for more people to start caring about saving our planet.

<span class="content-image-text">Jocelyn Travis</span>Jocelyn TravisJocelyn Travis, a Boomer, is a senior organizing manager with the Sierra Club, and Kenia Hale, 23, a pre-doctoral fellow at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy and the Ida B. Wells Just Data Lab, may be generations apart but they are working toward the same environmental justice goals in their work.

“With weather disasters and houses blowing up and no one understanding why, it’s very urgent right now,” says Travis, who became interested in environmental justice in the late 1980s and early 1990s while working with the Cleveland NAACP’s environmental justice initiative. She and others organized to shut down coal plants and waste treatment sites across Ohio.

Travis joined the Sierra Club in 2016 and her first campaign with this organization was “Ready for 100,” where the goal is to get cities to commit to becoming a 100 percent clean city, using renewable energy by 2050.

Travis says she thinks the younger generations get it and understand the severity of climate change, while the older folks in their 40s and up seem to be ignoring the issue.

“They know we have to preserve this planet for them,” she says of the GenZs and Millennials.

Hale, a Cleveland native, gets it. At both Princeton and Ida B. Wells, she examines environmental justice from a technology lens—thinking about the materiality of technology. She spends time considering what kind of climate impact goes into creating the technology we use, as well as how to use technology to organize for climate justice.

“I am really interested in food justice,” says Hale. “I have no official affiliation with a solely environmental organization, but environmental justice flows in and out of many spheres of my life.”

<span class="content-image-text">Kenia Hale</span>Kenia HaleHale and Travis agree that climate change is a very grave matter. Hale cites the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) annual reports that indicate environmental conditions are getting more dire each year.

“We cannot play with our future,” says Hale. “I wish it was something more people would take into consideration. Yes, it’s about me, people my age, but it’s also about future generations.”

She says it’s disempowering to hear disparaging information and sometimes it makes her feel like there is no point to her efforts, which then causes her to question if it’s worth having children. Among her generation, there is such a thing as “climate grief” and “climate anxiety.”

But, thinking about her ancestors’ resilience and how they endured the Middle Passage, slavery, and other injustices, gives Hale the energy to fight for environmental justice.

Hale adds that climate change and environmental degradation are often portrayed as something people can fix on their own by recycling more or growing their own food. While those things can help, the biggest polluters are the United States military, gigantic corporations, gas companies, and fossil fuel corporations.

“If we only focus on the individual, it helps the big corporations hide the negative impact they’ve had on the environment,” Hale says, adding that as climate change becomes more apparent, we’re going to see more climate migrants.

Travis agrees, saying the United States is the worst culprit when it comes to not understanding the importance of saving our environment.

“There are so many issues, such as fracking,” she says. “We have a long way to go with this issue, we have to get everybody on the same page. We have to do it all together. Unless we have our front-line communities and communities of color understanding the importance of climate justice, environmental justice, and saving the planet, we’re going in circles.”

Travis explains that African Americans have always been connected to the environment and lived off the land, however it’s a white world when environmental justice topics arise. “I still find myself the only Black person in many rooms,” she says.

However, Hale doesn’t find herself being the only Black in environmental spaces addressing these issues, only because her work focuses primarily on Blacks and people of color environmental justice organizations, she says. “I find a lot of young, Black people starting their own organizations and working in their own communities and I think that’s very powerful.”

Hale says she thinks there’s an understanding among younger Blacks that the race has always been connected to the environment. “The way that Black communities have learned to reuse things, that's a form of protecting the environment,” she says. “I think it’s about reclamation of ancestral tactics.”

<span class="content-image-text">What kind of climate impact goes into creating the technology we use and how do we use technology to organize for climate justice.</span>What kind of climate impact goes into creating the technology we use and how do we use technology to organize for climate justice.To move the needle, Travis says we can’t have environmental justice without the prominent intersections of social justice, food justice, and basic equality. Both Travis and Hale agree that environmental issues impact African Americans’ health more disproportionately than other ethnic groups.

“The same system that puts knees on the necks of Black folk that makes it hard to breathe is the same system that is creating fossil fuels so we can’t breathe in our communities,” says Hale.

“Once the climate is better, life is going to be better for Black folk too,” adds Travis. “It’s all intersectional. We just have to make sure everybody understands. We have to help the community relate climate change to everyday lives such as the food source, jobs, to things that are of interest to people so they can understand how it all works together.”

Another thing that needs to happen, Travis says, is elected officials must be educated to be aware of the impact of environmental injustices.

“In a lot of ways, we have to step back,” says Travis. “Go back to nature. Get out of the house. Step away from the computer.” She also recommends getting to know your neighbors. “It’s all about organizing,” Travis adds.

Hale believes those of us who have more capacity to show up, should. She also says we have to meet people where they are.

So, what can we do to make more people aware and get involved with the movement?

“To help people better understand the information around climate change and the environment, we have to become more creative in ways to get the message out,” Hale suggests.

<span class="content-image-text">The way that Black communities have learned to recycle and reuse things is a form of protecting the environment</span>The way that Black communities have learned to recycle and reuse things is a form of protecting the environmentHale recently published her short story “Deliverance,” which she calls “climate fiction” in the upcoming Literary Cleveland anthology “Reflections of The Land,” which features people from Cleveland sharing their reflections of the environment.

“It’s really important to create more fiction where diverse people are dealing with climate change and where we survive and make it through,” she says. “We have to have that creative imagination to find solutions.”

Hale has also been examining research that reveals how computers could generate enough energy to heat our homes, a topic that she critically examines in another climate fiction story, “Data That Chills,” published in “The Hopper Magazine.”

Travis adds that she thinks there should be more emphasis on clean energy jobs as well. “We have to train our young people and older people looking for work on these jobs,” she says.

With the Sierra Club’s “Ready for 100” goal, Travis says the challenge is the inability to control private industry. And, while the year 2030 is a better goal, she’ll take 2050 if we all actively work towards it.

“It’s going to be up to us to make a change in our communities,” says Travis.

This is the third story in a 10-part series of articles designed to highlight how an intergenerational model is helpful in moving the needle in so many aspects of Cleveland as well as to uplift narratives of resilience and impact within the environmental justice space. Upcoming stories will spotlight different organizations working on environmental justice and climate change as well as capture the intergenerational voices working on these issues.

Rhonda Crowder
Rhonda Crowder

About the Author: Rhonda Crowder

Rhonda Crowder worked as a general assignment reporter for the Call and Post Newspaper for 11 years and has served as associate publisher of "Who's Who in Black Cleveland" since 2013. She currently runs a creative services agency, is VP of print for the Greater Cleveland Association of Black Journalists, and coordinates Hough Reads literacy initiative. Her debut novel is titled "Riddles."