You may recall that Jack and Jill Politics received an offer to talk to John Kerry about the environment and his new book, This Moment on Earth. Jack and I turned to you to find out what you wanted to ask from John Kerry from a minority perspective. Because it’s all about the wisdom of crowds, right?

Sen. Kerry’s answers have come back. I know there’s a lot going on right now, e.g. the war in Iraq and the showdown between Congress and Bush, people threatening to rape Condi Rice, etc. The majority of African-Americans oppose the war so for a change of pace, let’s take a moment to talk long term and big picture on JK’s responses to our questions on environmental justice for black communities. Peace and One Love, Jill

1. A couple of months ago, a new piece came and went, whereby the city of Atlanta was ranked as one of the worst cities for the environment.
Some of the reasons were our relative lack of parks and open space.

While it’s true that we could desperately use more parks and green
space, we could also give our environment by improving our modes for
transportation and people-moving.

Here in Atlanta, there is still a Deep South notion that if
people-moving and transportation are too easy, it might encourage more
suburban integration than many folks are comfortable with. As such,
state lawmakers–if they want to keep their jobs–are forced to
reinforce this unspoken sentiment.

At what point might the federal government weigh in and provide the
leadership necessary to improve air and environmental quality by
mandating transportation alternatives?

JOHN KERRY: This is a huge issue for cities and local communities. We all need to think about how to use our cars less and use less fuel. We can carpool, walk, jump on a bike or take public transportation. I think that many urban areas have set an incredibly important example in adopting smart public transportation and investing in making these travel alternatives easier and more cost efficient for families and workers – look at what Portland and Boston and other places have done on public transportation and greenspace. Congress needs to get in the game too and do more to invest in public transportation – it is a win-win for low-income and elderly populations and for our environment.

2) I would like to know if he’s aware of the high incidence of asthma in the Black community, and how that relates to environmental factors? Asthma is a near epidemic with our children.

JK: You bet I am, and it’s unacceptable. For too long we’ve allowed a tragically high rate of asthma in the Black community and looked the other way at the connection to environmental factors. African Americans are three times more likely to be hospitalized from asthma. I’m an Honorary Co-Chair of Asthma Awareness Day on Capitol Hill, to work to inform my colleagues about this reality and work to find tangible solutions. But the truth is, asthma is the tip of the iceberg. I have a friend named Tom Farrington. Tom and I are both lucky. We were diagnosed with prostate cancer – and we got cured. Our fathers weren’t so lucky. Prostate cancer took them away from us. But once I got well, and once Tom got well, we started learning more and more – and a statistic that stays with me – and with Tom — who is African American – speaks volumes. African American men are 80% more likely to die of prostate cancer than white men. I started digging more, and discovered the unacceptable apartheid of health care in America: Black children five times more likely than white children to die of asthma; African Americans 70% more likely to have diabetes and 27% more likely to die from it. Just as the doctrine of ‘separate but equal,’ was wrong in education, it’s wrong in health care. The quality of health care should never depend on the color of any American’s skin. And there are huge environmental concerns at the core of all these problems.

3) Environmental justice is something the general public rarely hears about, but in N. Orleans after Katrina, we got a glimpse of how unevenly distributed toxic factories and other contaminated industries are. They disproportionately impact poor and minority communities. As America gears up to build new, low-carbon or post-fossil industries, how do we ensure that the burdens (pollution, contamination, etc) are shared as well as the benefits (economic development, jobs, and sustainable living)?

JK: The tragedy of Katrina opened a lot of peoples’ eyes to a level of injustice and inequality that never should have existed in our country in the first place. We’ve known for too long that environmental injustice looms large in too many of our communities – many of our citizens in lower income and minority communities have to live with excessive pollution, waste and low environmental standards. It hurts our kids’ health and the well being of our families. We’ve tried to put these issues on the national agenda. I got together with Hilda Solis and Alcee Hastings to ensure that environmental justice is taken into account during the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast. The victims of Katrina must not be victimized twice, first by a hurricane then by Washington’s assault on clean air and clean water. Every family in the Gulf Coast deserves decent public health and environmental protections. I’ll also continue to fight for the Environmental Justice Act to protect the health and welfare of minority and low-income communities across the country. The Environmental Justice Act directs the EPA to include environmental justice into their emergency command response structure. It’s one step in the right direction.

4) Today the actions that individuals can take to reduce their environmental impact often require significant education and investment. It’s a luxury for many people to purchase efficient appliances, buy a hybrid car, install solar panels in their homes or shop exclusively locally/organically. How do we remind people that
everyone, regardless of financial resources, can make changes to improve the situation? Additionally, how do we make major changes like auto choice, locally-based food shopping and alternative home energy technologies affordable for middle and low income households?

JK: It’s true that some of these newer sources of energy – for example, hybrid cars – are currently more expensive than regular cars. It’s reality. That’s why I’m working hard to make our auto makers have the incentive to make hybrid vehicles LESS expensive than regular cars. But another reality is that with gas and oil prices soaring through the roof, we need to find new ways to run our cars and heat our homes. Too many families are unable to take summer trips because gas is too expensive. And what’s worse, too many seniors and families have to choose between putting food on the table and paying their heating bills in the winter. These are more reasons we need to invent new ways and adopt alternative sources of energy.

Today, we can all do something. We can turn off the lights when we leave the room, we can recycle. We can all encourage our communities to have a clean up day to make our surroundings safer and cleaner. We can conserve water and paper. We can learn from people like Majora Carter in the South Bronx who lead a movement to turn her community around – she wasn’t connected, she wasn’t wealthy, but she had a drive and an idea and she made a difference. She inspired me, and I hope our book helps her inspire others. Majora doesn’t buy into the cynical conventional wisdom that you can’t change things.

5) While it is great that the global warming debate in America finally seems to have moved beyond, “is it happening?”, the singular focus on carbon emissions seems to miss a related and equally dramatic reality:
the world is at or near its peak supply of oil and hydrocarbons like natural gas and, to a lesser extent, coal.
While this might be seen as good news (can’t burn it if we don’t have it!), I fear we may be underestimating the impact of declining supply on our economy and our lives. Hydrocarbons are critical to our food supply (fertilizer and transportation), home heating and American suburban lifestyle. Many alternative energies based on biomass assume a stable supply of oil to
be economically viable — if we can no longer grow corn on a massive scale, then the great hope of ethanol fizzles. What do you think about the era of declining oil supply, and how do you propose we factor it in to our planning for a more sustainable future?

JK: This is all the more reason that we need to have leadership in Congress that addresses the need to be energy independent in a serious and urgent way. Cutting carbon emissions and greenhouse gas emissions is an incredibly important part of this overall goal. But you are right – we need to get real about our dependence on oil.

Here’s how: First, we need to stand up for efforts to drill in places like Bristol Bay in Alaska and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. How insulting and ridiculous it is to be told that the solution to our problems is to drill in and destroy the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that would yield a few months of oil when we are already importing 60 percent of our oil and climbing? God only gave us 3% of the world’s oil reserves. There is simply no way to drill our way out of our problem. We have to invent our way out.

Look, oil won’t disappear tomorrow, but diversifying and inventing new sources of energy is more important today than ever before. For some, it may be hard to conceive of a world where fossil fuels, and especially petroleum, are not the dominant sources of fuel.

In fact, we’ve been here before. One hundred and fifty years ago in Massachusetts, in New Bedford and Nantucket, no one could conceive of a future that didn’t depend on whale oil. But, bottom line, until recently, America’s history has been to drive technology, transform marketplaces, and invent a future never imagined before. In America, making the impossible possible has been a credo and a way of life. In the 1930s only 10 percent of rural America had electricity. Utilities refused to wire rural counties because homes were too far apart. To bring electricity to all Americans, Congress provided more than $5 billion to finance rural electrification. By the 1950s, there was hardly a corner of America that was still dark. Across our history we’ve successfully moved from wood to coal, coal to oil, oil to a mix of oil, gas, coal, nuclear and hydroelectric. Now it’s time to move to solar, wind, biomass, fuel cells, clean coal, and other wonders of American ingenuity – and don’t let anyone tell you we can’t do it. To start: We must establish mandates for reducing U.S. oil consumption by 2.5 million barrels of oil per day by 2015 — an amount equivalent to the oil we currently import from the Persian Gulf. And we can’t just set a mandate — we have to provide incentives to businesses and industry to make the mandate achievable. We must significantly ramp up our production of Flex Fuel Vehicles. They run on alternative fuels, like E85, a blend of 85 percent ethyl alcohol — a home-grown, domestic, completely renewable source of fuel that burns cleaner than gasoline.

6) People say your book is inspirational. Why should I give it to my minister?

JK: Because rescuing our environment should be a faith-based movement in the tradition of the great faith-based movements from abolitionism to the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s. It’s not a book about me; it’s not a book about Teresa. The inspiration isn’t from me; it’s from our common mission. It gets at the heart of the deep concern virtually all people of faith are enjoined to maintain toward sustaining and protecting God’s first creation. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians 10:20 says, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything on it.” Well, these days we face problems on a biblical scale—floods, storms, plagues, the destruction of entire cities. Evangelicals talk about “creation-care” — that any damage that we do to God’s world is an offense against God. God called us to be stewards of the earth and its creatures, and since most of the climate change problem is human induced, its’ pretty clear that we haven’t done that good of a job. The warnings are loud and clear for all to see—rising waters, melting caps, storms of ever-greater proportions, and ironclad scientific evidence. Surely this is an issue where people of faith can come together and demand action. This movement belongs in pulpits across our country.

7) What are the top 5 things African-Americans can do today to create a better environment individually and in our communities?

JK: There’s so much that each of us can do in our daily lives to help the environment. Small, everyday actions can improve the Earth’s health. But here are a few:

1. Keep your car in good condition: Get your engine tuned up regularly, change the oil, and keep your tires properly inflated — proper maintenance can increase your car’s fuel efficiency by 10 percent and reduce emissions.
2. Buy energy efficient products: When buying new appliances or electronics, shop for the highest energy-efficiency rating. Look for the yellow and black Energy Guide label on the product. According to the EPA, the typical American household can save about $400 per year in energy bills with products that carry the Energy Star label as the most efficient in its class.
3. Turn off lights and other electrical appliances such as televisions and radios when you’re not using them: This is a very simple step, but it’s surprising how many times we forget. Install automatic timers for lights that people in your house frequently forget to flick off when leaving a room. Use dimmers when you can.
4. Choose PVC-free building products: this can reduce the exposure of your family to toxins in your home environment. Steer clear of vinyl windows and doors and choose wood instead. Adhesives, caulk, grout, and sealants may also contain phthalates.
5. Choose toys carefully: this is another important step to reduce your children’s exposure to toxins. Look for toys and feeding products for babies and young children that are labeled “PVC free.”

8) This is not a question but a bit of praise. Thank you for including Sustainable South Bronx in your book.

The truth is, the praise – which I appreciate – thank you! – but it’s almost misplaced. Teresa and I were just the storytellers: Majora is the hero. She deserves the spotlight. This incredible woman from the South Bronx went door-to-door to mobilize her community against a proposed waste transfer station. She then built an organization to advance the environmental and economic rebirth of the area. She coordinated New York City’s first “green roof” – a special rooftop garden that can help a building maintain proper heating and cooling. We wanted to tell the stories of these environmental heroes – the new environmentalists – because they speak so powerfully to what we can each do to save the environment. We found their stories not just inspiring, but empowering. They said to us: this isn’t pie in the sky, do-gooder dreaming – we can actually tackle big problems together. Think about a guy in the book like Rick Dove: a Marine, a Vietnam veteran, and a former commercial fisherman living on the Neuse River in North Carolina. He began to notice sick fish in the river. He later realized it was caused by nutrient pollution from the industrial hog farms nearby. At an age where so many people are understandably slowing down, he made cleaning up that river his passion. There’s such untapped energy out there to really get things done on the environment.

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