More than 50 years after the Freedom Riders rode buses into the South to test the legal desegregation of interstate travel, another bus with a freedom message traveled across state lines this year. The bus was called Freedom to Breathe and it bears the message “social justice is climate justice,” painted on its sky-blue chassis. The campaign pulled into San Francisco this week in time for a major summit highlighting local responses to climate change.
The Freedom to Breathe bus covered 5,000 miles from Atlanta to California, stopping along the way to witness how climate change disproportionately affects poor communities and people of color, while also highlighting grassroots solutions to address environmental degradation.
“Each stop showed that these communities have the wrong complexion for protection,” says Texas Southern University professor Robert Bullard, widely acknowledged as “the father of environmental justice.”
Bullard hosted the bus in Houston, where he has documented how landfills were clustered in black neighborhoods. He sees a direct connection between 1960s struggles for civil rights with today’s environmental justice movement.
“The Freedom to Breathe bus tour parallels those Freedom Rides of the ’60s in that it’s saying all Americans have a basic right to not be inundated with pollution and the right to breathe clean air should not be a privilege reserved for those with money,” he said.
The bus observed climate-driven gentrification in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood; the impact of fossil fuel infrastructure along the Gulf Coast’s “Cancer Alley” that includes historically black communities like Africatown, Alabama; and the lingering effects of flooded refineries in Port Arthur, Texas after Hurricane Harvey.
But they spotted glimmers of hope as well.
“These communities that are under siege and overpolluted — they are still resilient, they are still developing plans and strategies to green their communities,” Bullard said.
From urban agriculture to fossil fuel setbacks, here are three examples of grassroots climate action happening across the U.S. that the Freedom to Breathe bus tour visited:
Fighting for Setbacks in Oil Country: Karnes County sits in the heart of Texas oil country, but it has just one air quality monitor. In towns like Karnes City and Odessa, that lone monitor is insufficient to track the emissions of 2,300 operating wells, and residents suffer from asthma, chronic headaches, nosebleeds, and heart palpitations as a result. Locals banded together as KARE, Karnes Area Residents for the Environment, to push for a local law that would require a minimum setback for oil wells and fracking installations from residential properties. Currently, there are homes as close as 500 feet from oil well to front door. But they have an uphill battle: The state does not regulate such setbacks and has been known to preempt city and county governments that get in the way of the fossil fuel industry. After Denton banned fracking in 2015, the Texas legislature overruled the town with a state law that allowed the practice to resume.
Carbon Capture with your CSA: At Chispas Farms, just across the Rio Grande from downtown Albuquerque, fallow fields resting for the next season don’t just sit bare. Instead, the farmers plant cover crops that boost the farm’s carbon capture capacity far beyond that which its food-producing plants can suck out of the atmosphere. Once those veggies are ready for harvest, meanwhile, Chispas gladly accepts SNAP benefits at local farmer’s markets, allowing lower-income Albuquerqueans a chance to participate in their seasonal CSA.
Solarize Affordable Rental Housing: Most residential solar panels in the U.S. end up on top of homes where the owners live in the building. Renters, especially those in apartment buildings, have had almost no opportunity to find solar-powered homes. That might change after this week’s announcement by Sunrun, Inc., a publicly-traded home solar company, that it is moving into multifamily housing. Freedom to Breathe visited Sunrun’s Las Vegas manufacturing facility on its way to California, where the company plans to develop a minimum of 100 megawatts of solar on affordable multi-family housing over the next decade, in buildings where 80 percent of tenants fall below 60 percent of the area median income. Back in Nevada, Sunrun will soon begin offering a discounted electricity rate to low-income households through a state program called RenewableGenerations.
Gregory Scruggs is a Seattle-based independent journalist who writes about solutions for cities. He has covered major international forums on urbanization, climate change, and sustainable development where he has interviewed dozens of mayors and high-ranking officials in order to tell powerful stories about humanity’s urban future. He has reported at street level from more than two dozen countries on solutions to hot-button issues facing cities, from housing to transportation to civic engagement to social equity. In 2017, he won a United Nations Correspondents Association award for his coverage of global urbanization and the UN’s Habitat III summit on the future of cities. He is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners.