By Ellice Ellis
Hillary Clinton addresses the Flint water crisis during a presidential debate.
The water crisis in Flint, Michigan thrust environmental justice issues into the national spotlight during the 2016 Democratic presidential primary.
The gap between the Democratic primary candidates’ positions on environmental justice and how to address the still unresolved Flint water crisis might not have been very wide, but in the general election, there is a deep gulf between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Flint remains in the middle of an almost 2-year long public health crisis. Earlier this year, we learned that thousands of children had been exposed to dangerous levels of lead in their drinking water. State and local officials failed Flint’s residents, who are 56.6 percent black, another 8 percent Latino or mixed race, and 41.5 percent living in poverty.
Hillary Clinton was the first presidential candidate to visit Flint, drawing further national attention to its plight. During an interview with Rachel Maddow back in January, she showed her outrage and frustration with the lack of response from the local government and called for widespread improvements to infrastructure. After all, Flint is far from the only example of failures to protect Americans’ drinking water: an NRDC analysis of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency records revealed that at least 18 million Americans could be exposed to lead in their tap water.
Clinton understands that everyone has a right to clean drinking water, regardless of race or income. In an MSNBC op-ed, Clinton pledged to “…make environmental justice a central part of [her] comprehensive commitment to low-income communities of color…”
In sharp contrast to Trump’s dangerous disregard for environmental protections and public health, Clinton’s positions and record on these issues is in line with the concerns of one of America’s most important electorates. Black Americans, Latinos, other peoples of color and millennials — collectively known as the Rising American Electorate (RAE) — have proven not only essential to winning national elections, as seen in 2012, but also fundamentally concerned about environmental issues.
Latinos are deeply culturally connected to the environment, according to Pamela Rivera, Partnership Engagement Advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “For many, the cultivation of the land is how they feed their families and support themselves,” she said, which makes the protecting the earth from climate change an important issue in their minds.
During the 2012 election, the RAE collectively made up 48 percent of the overall electorate. This ratio helped to elect the nation’s first black president. And the RAE has continued to grow — all races except non-Hispanic whites have had more births than deaths between 2013 and 2014.
The groups that make up this politically essential electorate most acutely feel the impacts of climate change and other environmental issues. This could explain why, of registered voters, 63 percent of the RAE is concerned about climate change (compared to only 50 percent of other Americans).
Despite occurring more than a decade ago, Hurricane Katrina devastated Gulf states serving as a powerful reminder of low-income and minority communities’ vulnerability to weather events exacerbated by climate change. Rising sea levels primarily impact the coastal lands on which more African Americans are likely to live than any other minority group, according to this NAACP fact sheet.
The tragic effects Katrina had on the residents of New Orleans, a coastal city with a black population of 58.5 percent, were followed by the federal government’s slow response to help the victims. There are clear parallels in how the state of Michigan initially ignored warning signs of lead poisoning among Flint residents.
Latinos make up over half the population of urban areas such as East Los Angeles and San Antonio, Texas. They are 30 percent more likely to take trips to the hospital for asthma triggered by inner-city air pollution.
Clinton’s focus on environmental justice will likely hit home with these communities in the RAE. Her focus is in contrast to an avidly climate-denying GOP candidate who says that climate change is a hoax invented by China to cripple the U.S. economy and gain competitive advantage. Trump also says he wants to eliminate the ‘Department of Environment Protection,’ which presumably is what he thinks the EPA is called.
Trump’s plan to abolish the EPA would prevent the enforcement of bedrock environmental protections. This would leave vulnerable communities, especially those in the RAE, unprotected from environmental hazards.
Trump and the multitude of former GOP presidential candidates this election cycle have displayed the profound disconnect between the Republican Party in its current form and the issues the RAE care about.
The polarized political views on climate change across and the spotlight on the Flint water crisis have propelled environmental issues into higher focus ahead of November. The stark contrasts between the candidates on these issues could mean these issues play a more prominent role in encouraging voters to turn out.
In late July, Clinton became the first woman to accept the presidential nomination of a major U.S. political party. Her record as an environmental champion, underscored by her support from major environmental groups, prove that she’s well-positioned to protect and strengthen President Obama’s legacy on environmental protections and climate action. In a world where the six most influential positions at the global United Nations climate talks are all held by women, Clinton is poised to continue female environmental leadership and use her status to inspire members of America’s quickly growing Rising American Electorate.
This election cycle, climate draws an obvious distinction between Clinton and Trump. The current status of the Democratic Party platform sets Clinton up to run on the strongest climate change agenda ever. On the other hand, Trump’s running mate Mike Pence is a fellow climate-denier who has called global warming a myth. When RAE voters head to the polls in November, they will remember Clinton’s many endorsements from environmental groups, her awareness of environmental justice issues and commitment to tackling them, and her climate action plan.
Despite climate-denying politicians and the gulf in climate science acceptance across party lines, Americans want action on climate change. New polling tells us 7 in 10 voters support a role for the federal government in reducing carbon emissions and combating climate change.
If a Donald Trump presidency becomes our reality in November, very few in the White House will heed the concerns most Americans have for their families’ health and for years of American environmental progress.
Ellice Ellis is an intern at NRDC Action Fund through the Urban Alliance program, which pairs D.C.-area high school students with internships in potential career fields.