SAN FRANCISCO -- In the past, environmentalists were pegged as people who drove hybrid cars, saved forests, and protected polar bears.
But a new type of environmentalist has emerged in California. Today's environmentalists are people of color who are directly impacted, and most burdened, by the impacts of air pollution and climate change, panelists said during an ethnic media briefing last Wednesday.
"People of color are the strongest environmentalists in the state of California," said Roger Kim, executive director of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, which fights for environmental and social justice in low-income Asian immigrant and refugee communities.
"You name the issue, people of color want the highest level of concern and also want stronger action from our government," Kim said. "It's the fact that Asians, blacks and Latinos are really bearing the brunt of the burden of environmental pollution in this state."
A new study from the Public Policy Institute of California reinforces Kim's assessment.
According to the survey, 'Californians and the Environment,' Latinos, blacks and Asians across the state are very concerned about the health risks of air pollution, and strongly support government actions and regulations to reduce greenhouse gases.
The difference in opinion between Caucasians and people of color was also apparent in the Central Valley, according to the survey.
For example, the survey found that 47 percent of Latinos and blacks in the Valley -- and 29 percent of whites -- said air pollution was a big problem. Thirty-five percent of Latinos and blacks, and 21 percent of whites, said regional air pollution is a very serious health threat for themselves and their families.
Kim said the survey results reflect the way in which people of color understand their environment.
For Latinos, blacks and Asians, he said, the environment, "is very much about where we live, work and play. It's not about the environment as something removed from us -- it's not about the trees and the mountains that are up there away from our neighborhood."
For people of color, he said, caring about the environment means considering how much park space there is in communities, the quality of the air in neighborhoods, and the types of toxic substances people are exposed to in the workplace.
"It's an understanding of the environment as something that is very personal and very lived," he said.
Jakada Imani, executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, agreed that people of color view the environment from a more personal perspective.
"When you come to our community and you talk about the environment, you don't think about the trees in Lake Tahoe, you think about the neighborhood that you live in," Imani said.
"If you start talking about air pollution, and you start talking about the impacts on your family, and your children, and your grandchildren, that's a different conversation, and that has been the conversation in our community."
In California, which has become a majority-minority state, the poll results should help guide state policies on air pollution, energy and climate change, the panelists said.
Both across the state and within the Valley, Latinos, blacks and Asians show strong support for AB 32, the state law that requires California to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions back to 1990 levels by the year 2020, and for state policies to address global warming, according to the poll results.
Communities of color are also more likely to believe that efforts to reduce global warming will create more jobs, according to the report.
But so far, Kim said, people of color have not been involved enough in policy discussions about the environment.
It's important for people to have a voice in the debate, he said, to ensure that new efforts combatting climate change and global warming bring jobs and investments to communities of color, rather than further placing burden on them.
"People of color are the strongest environmentalists in the state, yet we are not part of the debate that is happening locally, statewide, nationally," Kim said. "If we are not at table making those kinds of demands, we are not going to see those benefits come to the community."
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