Environmental Justice Activists Are Leading a Green New Deal Revolution

Even among observers who accept the grave reality of climate change, the Green New Deal is often described as an “ambitious” if not overly broad proposal for a massive public investment in green infrastructure, with the dual goals of slowing climate disruption while growing a more just economy.

However, for Indigenous people and communities of color facing the impacts of toxic pollution and climate destruction head-on, the Green New Deal is more than a lofty resolution championed by progressives in Congress and picked apart by cable news pundits. For activists on the frontlines, the Green New Deal is a call to organize around their lived experience and lead the nation toward a sustainable future, and they are not waiting for lawmakers to act.

“Let’s add something that is going to mitigate the effects of global warming…. This area could be filled with industries that fulfill the Green New Deal,” said Rev. Gregory Manning as he marched along the Mississippi River in the Louisiana petrochemical corridor known as Cancer Alley on Thursday.

Manning, a pastor and community organizer from nearby New Orleans, was marching with about 50 other activists toward the Dupont-Denka chemical plant in St. John the Baptist Parish. Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Air Toxics Assessment estimated that the risk of cancer in neighborhoods closest to the chemical plant in St. John the Baptist Parish reached nearly 800 times the national average — the highest rate in the nation.

Manning is one of several clergy and environmental justice activists leading the March Against Death Alley, a five-day march that kicked off at an elementary school near the Dupont-Denka plant, and is currently making its way through the petrochemical corridor to the state capital in Baton Rouge. For years, the area has been nicknamed Cancer Alley due to the large amounts of toxic pollution spewed by dozens of refineries, plastics plants and petrochemical depots. After years of controversy over the cause of rare illnesses and cancer clusters, the federal government finally released data in 2015 showing that communities here face some of the highest risk of cancer from air pollution in the United States.

Activists say people have died from the pollution here and have given Cancer Alley the new moniker, Death Alley. With the March Against Death Alley, they are demanding the Dupont-Denka plant further reduce emissions of chloroprene, a likely carcinogen blamed for illness and increased risk of cancer for residents.

For the past three decades, a steady stream of stories about environmental racism have flowed out of Death Alley, where rural Black communities established by survivors of slavery have faced pollution, illness and, in some cases, outright displacement in the shadow of industrial facilities processing chemicals and fossil fuels. Environmental justice activists say that Black communities in Death Alley have not benefited economically from the petrochemical industry but have suffered the most from its pollution.

Now, a few miles upriver from the Dupont-Denka plant, residents in the community of St. James are fighting proposals to build new petrochemical plants in an area that is already inundated by heavy industry. These include a massive plastics plant that nearby residents fear would wipe their community off the map. During a press conference before the march, Manning called the pollution and illness in Death Alley a “genocide,” because a specific group of people — Black people — have seen their communities targeted for heavy industrial development.

The Green New Deal contains specific language for such environmental justice communities, where lower-income people of color are overburdened by pollution. According to the resolution introduced by Democrats Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Edward Markey, the Green New Deal must “promote justice and equity” by addressing the oppression of Indigenous people, communities of color, low-income people, people with disabilities and other “frontline and vulnerable communities” that often bear the brunt of pollution and climate change. Look no further than southern Louisiana, where Indigenous people with ties to Gulf tribes such as the United Houma Nation are among the first to be resettled from coastal areas that are disappearing due to erosion and rising seas.

The Green New Deal language about “frontline” communities comes from the grassroots environmental justice movement, which put pressure on Democratic lawmakers to introduce and support the resolution in the first place. According to the resolution, the Green New Deal must be “developed through transparent and inclusive consultation” with communities impacted by pollution and economic decline. For activists like Jayeesha Dutta, a member of Another Gulf is Possible, a group that centers the leadership of women of color living in the Gulf South, such language is crucial for rolling out a Green New Deal without leaving areas currently dominated by fossil fuels behind.

“At this point with the legislation and the whole process, it somewhat remains to be seen how much frontline communities — particularly those in places where we live, in New Orleans and Louisiana and the Gulf South — are going to benefit from it directly,” Dutta said in an interview.

The Green New Deal is great in theory, Dutta said, but she worries about whether future investments in green infrastructure would largely go to wealthier areas on the East and West Coasts, where corporate infrastructure and political support for renewables like wind and solar are already in place. What about Louisiana and Texas, where the oil and gas industry has held a firm grip on the economy for decades? It’s here that frontline communities have felt the impacts of massive oil spills and rising seas that come along with an economy that has long been based on the extraction of resources, both from the Earth and from communities of color.

So, Dutta says, it’s crucial that frontline communities in parts of the country that may be resistant to economic change have a seat at the table as the Green New Deal takes shape, allowing those most impacted to set up guardrails that keep policymakers on track.

“In this story that we are telling right now through the Green New Deal, there is a little bit of a gap in addressing some of the long-term consequences [of] extraction that the South, and in particular the Gulf South, have suffered since the founding of this country,” Dutta said.

Dutta is a member of the steering committee at the Climate Justice Alliance, a coalition that centers the wisdom of Indigenous and frontline communities in the movement for a “just transition” from an extractive economy built around fossil fuels to a regenerative one. It was activists fighting for environmental justice that paved the way for “the Green New Deal moment,” according to the Alliance’s website. While pundits argue about climate science, “socialism” and the supposed cost of the Green New Deal, those who have fought for environmental and climate justice for decades are already working to craft their own visions for a Green New Deal from the ground up.

“We’re in a premier position to lead this nation around this vision,” said Colette Pichon Battle, executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy, at a recent town hall in New Orleans focused on a Green New Deal for the Gulf South. “We should be a leader in rebuilding this country’s infrastructure and creating millions of jobs to do it.”

If anyone knows about resilience and infrastructure, Battle said, it’s Black and Indigenous people in the Gulf South. Here, frontline communities have survived hurricanes, oil spills and disastrous floods, all while challenging the deeply-entrenched fossil fuel industry. If politicians supporting the Green New Deal want infrastructure upgrades to benefit those who have been left behind by the current extractive economy, they should be looking to leaders emerging from places like Death Alley rather than Silicon Valley.

However, the Green New Deal as it exists in Congress is simply a broad resolution that is unlikely to pass anytime soon, at least in its current form. Battle said activists on the ground are already looking beyond the legislation and creating their own visions for the future.

“This is not about a piece of legislation,” Battle said. “This is about a moment in time, it’s about what we can do together, and I believe we will win.”

Back in Death Alley, the marchers are not bringing lofty demands for a Green New Deal for Louisiana to Baton Rouge, where pro-industry conservatives dominate the political scene. Their concerns are much more immediate; people in their communities are in danger of being poisoned or losing their homes. They are demanding no new petrochemical projects in communities along the Mississippi River, and that Dupont-Denka either reduce toxic emissions to a level recommended by the EPA or shut down.

Still, the promise of a Green New Deal is inspiring organizers in Death Alley and across the Gulf South. These environmental justice communities are bearing witness to many of the problems the resolution seeks to fix, including economies flattened and exploited by the fossil fuel extraction and production that threatens us all. Perhaps a Green New Deal could bring green infrastructure to Death Alley and the jobs that come with it.

However, without built-in protections for frontline communities in the Gulf South and other regions with a legacy of extraction, serious reductions in fossil fuel consumption in more progressive parts of the country could send the industry scrambling to build more plastics and chemical plants in places like Death Alley in order to maintain a market for oil and gas. The future remains unwritten in the Gulf South, and the people fighting on the frontlines of climate change are not waiting on anyone else to write it for them.