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At the Sanders Institute Gathering, Abdul El-Sayed, the runner-up in Michigan’s Democratic 2018 governor’s race primary, talks about how to bridge fights for environmental health and justice with the global fight to reduce carbon emissions

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DHARNA NOOR: It’s The Real News, I’m Dharna Noor.

A new World Health Organization report just released that the UN Climate Talks, or COP 24, in Poland shows that an estimated one million lives could be saved through reductions in air pollution as recommended by 2015’s UN Paris Climate Accord. Each year, exposure to air pollution causes seven million deaths through elevated risks of conditions like stroke, heart disease and lung cancer. With the Trump administration rolling back environmental protections at the federal level, many are looking to state races to enact change. One race in particular was Abdul El-Sayed’s run in Michigan’s gubernatorial primary. El-Sayed lost the Democratic primary to Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, but not before garnering the endorsement of Bernie Sanders and others.

I spoke with El-Sayed at the Sanders institute gathering in Vermont this month, where he spoke on a panel about the need to root the climate crisis in community. Al-Sayed hails from Detroit, a city where air pollution has posed public health crises. Here’s an excerpt from his talk and stick around for our interview.

ABDUL AL-SAYED: And I want you to imagine if you were a small child, a little girl, let’s say you’re three years old, and you have mom or dad just got laid off because GM shut down a plant at the edge of Detroit and Hamtramck, 1500 jobs lost, which by the way had been built over top of a community, a multi ethnic community called Poletown, 30 years ago. They actually had to physically lift five women in a paddy wagon so that the bulldozers could start building at that last minute to build that plant. Now in Detroit, the probability of being hospitalized for asthma is threefold the rest of the state. If you have mild persistent asthma, you’re likely to miss at least one school day every two weeks. And it’s not because you got to stay home and play video games, it’s because you could not breathe that morning and you had to be rushed to a hospital.

And the reason why is because Detroit is the epicenter of most of the biggest carbon emitting plants in the entire state of Michigan. A Marathon Petroleum refinery probably sits within two miles of that three year old girl’s home. And that petroleum refinery, they’re the biggest single emitter of sulfur dioxide in the entire state. The EPA has ruled them to be in what’s called non-attainment. So when we talk about the climate change epidemic, let’s think about the roots. And the roots are in those communities where this climate is released, and the consequences are babies who can’t go to school because they cannot breathe.

DHARNA NOOR: And now, my interview with Abdul El-Sayed, who was a contender in Michigan’s Democratic gubernatorial primary and now chairs the PAC, Southpaw Michigan.

So Abdul, the climate crisis is obviously a global crisis affecting every part of the globe, of course particularly hitting first and worse those who are already marginalized. Talk about why this is also a local issue. You just came off of a run in Michigan, from Detroit, raised in Detroit. Talk about why this is a local issue.

ABDUL AL-SAYED: Yeah. So Detroit is one of the most industrial parts of the United States, right in the middle of the Rust Belt. And I think you can you can know the impact of a tree, whether it’s a good tree or a bad tree at its roots. And the roots are the most profound in a place like Detroit. I used to be the health commissioner in that city, and we suffer an asthma epidemic that puts three times as many kids in hospitals for asthma in Detroit than the rest of the state of Michigan. And we all know about the Flint water crisis and about the lead poisoning epidemic in places like Detroit. These are environmental catastrophes that speak to the truth of environmental injustice.

And so, in understanding how climate change affects people, we have to look to the places where the causes of climate change are the worst and then almost always recognize that the impact is always going to be felt by those who are the most impoverished, poor working people and people of color, who are most marginalized in the society, and the truth of Detroit, I think, speaks to that in profound and really troubling ways, in ways that we have to deal with.

DHARNA NOOR: So talk about what your response is, though, when people invoke the need to preserve the fossil fuel economy because of the number of jobs that it’s created.

ABDUL AL-SAYED: So I went to battle with a local Marathon Petroleum Refinery in Southwest Detroit. They were the single biggest producer of sulphur dioxide in one of the most polluted zip codes in the entire country, the most polluted in the entire state of Michigan. And they wanted to raise their emissions of sulfur dioxide just by being in what’s called non-attainment, meaning the EPA had already said there’s too much sulfur dioxide in the air, you cannot put more in. And when they wanted to raise their emissions, we realized that they were going to get away with it. The state of Michigan was going to give them a permit. And so, we stood up and we said enough is enough. These kids are suffering the consequences of what you’re doing. And we were able to force them to reduce their emissions, investing ten million dollars overall to do it.

A lot of folks think that these folks can’t be beat. Fact is, if you can organize around the people and with people together to build a movement to speak truth to these folks and to make them feel the political consequences of their choices, they can be. But beyond that, we know that the future is not going to be fossil. These are, I might say, fossilized corporations that continue to move down this path because they’re trying to protect or juice out whatever value they see left in what is now a dated and technologically irrelevant way of creating energy. So we have to embrace our future, we have to create the political circumstances within which these people recognize the costs of what they do. And we have to start agitating and organizing and centering the conversation around the people who are the most likely to be victims of what they do, both in those local communities and generally.

Because every time we have a “biggest storm in history,” right, who are the people who get hurt the most? They’re almost always poor and working people and they’re almost always the folks who are most marginalized in their communities.

DHARNA NOOR: But how does one mobilize against something that’s as moneyed as the fossil fuel industry? I mean, even if the left and environmentalists have an organizing base, there’s never going to be as much capital in those circles as there is if you’re a shell or an Exxon.

ABDUL AL-SAYED: I think what the new progressive movement is starting to show is that the only value of money is that it’s used to sway public opinion. And if you can short circuit that process and you speak right to people and the truths that they understand explicitly and implicitly, you can win. The beauty of the Bernie campaign, the beauty of Ocasio-Cortez campaign, the beauty of so many of the 2018 races, and I hope the future of progressive politics, is that we’ve done this by being able to take the case directly to people about why we believe what we believe, and the sense in it. The beauty of freedom of speech is that you get to use it, and people get to make their own decisions. Now, they always beat us because they dominate the airwaves. Turns out that a lot of folks just don’t watch as much TV anymore.

And so, they’re going to start catching up soon, but truth is truth, and if you have a good message, it is far more compelling. I always joke that you know you can sweeten your tea with white table sugar or you can use wildflower honey. Takes a lot less of the honey and you get a far better result. And I think our message is wildflower honey. We just have to invest in it and we have to believe in it, we’ve got to stop apologizing for it.

DHARNA NOOR: What do you think the future is of climate justice organizing and climate justice movements at local levels? I think that there’s been so much more focus on what can be done at the city level, the state level, because of the climate denial we’ve seen at a federal level under Trump.

ABDUL AL-SAYED: Yeah, I think that’s where it starts, right. There are people in local communities who are frustrated about the stuff coming out of the smokestack, right. Frustrated about the fact that they live in the shadow of a bridge where trucks are idling. Those are the folks who I think are the building blocks of this movement. And if we can center them and we can tell their stories of organizing and of people power and of taking on these big monied interests and winning, when we center their stories, that’s what I think coalesces into the kind of state level and national level movement that will ultimately win the future when it comes to this issue. And so, I actually think they are the future and I think they are the focus and I think bringing up their stories matters. One of the challenges I think we as progressives have is that we think that data moves people, or even abstract ideals move people.

Stories move people. Our brains were hardwired over a long period of time to hear stories. You can imagine, go back 50,000 years, and you can talk about why a mother tells her kid not to go to the river. She doesn’t say, well, you know 15 out of every 100 children who go to the river are liable to drown. She just says, let me tell you about the other boy who went to the river. And we’ve got to start harnessing the power of stories and the power of narrative. And if we can do that, I think that’s where we win in the future.

DHARNA NOOR: How limited is local organizing and local movements, though, by the Trump administration, by the majority Republican Senate, by even Democrats who are continuing to take fossil fuel contributions?

ABDUL AL-SAYED: Yeah. Well look, we’ve got a long way to go. And you’ve named all of the opposition and they’re going to keep opposing because that’s what’s in their focus. I prefer not to center them. The Trump administration can keep doing what it does, but so long as we keep pointing at him and saying, well, everything’s impossible, then that’s what I think kills the impetus. And so, for me, it’s not about them, it’s not about what they’re going to do. They are what they are. It’s like saying I’m going climb a mountain, I just wish it was a little bit flatter. Well, the mountain’s the mountain and we’ve got to keep putting one step ahead of the other, centering our message, centering our stories, centering our conversation and not ceding space in the conversation to those folks who because they’re bought off or because they’ve been there all along, don’t see the truth of the injustice that they create.

DHARNA NOOR: Do you ever find that it’s hard to tell those stories, though, when so many people are focusing on the more immediate issues that are facing them. I mean, obviously we know that climate change is currently impacting especially the Global South, poor people, people of color across the globe. But it’s often so much easier to see the economic troubles that you’re facing, it’s so much easier to see your lack of healthcare, your lack of employment.

ABDUL AL-SAYED: Well, I’ll tell you right now, people are increasingly focused on the environment because at the local level, it affects their lives. And that’s also why I think centering local stories is so important. You can show somebody an image of an iceberg or an image of a sickly polar bear. People don’t see icebergs every day, they don’t see sickly polar bears or even healthy polar bears. Those don’t speak as true as telling them about a boy from their community who has to spend a day every other week in a hospital because he’s coughing out his lungs. That could be your kid, right, you know that kid, you’ve seen that kid walking up and down your street. And that’s why I think the local stories are so important, because they get us past these abstract ideas that most people can’t connect with and they get us to the people who live real lives in their communities. And that’s why I think centering those stories is so powerful, because it cuts through this abstract, it cuts through these numbers it and it shows you the world as it is, the world as it could be.

DHARNA NOOR: I mean, it would be wrong if I didn’t mention, though, that organizing and the campaign that you ran were in many ways a win, but ultimately you were defeated in the primary. So that opposition, I think, we can see is still very strong. Talk about what still, I guess, gives you hope moving forward and what’s next for these local climate movements and for the global movement for environmental justice.

ABDUL AL-SAYED: Yeah. If we think we’re not going to have failures along the way, then we don’t appreciate what we’re up against. And the nature of effort is not that you make the effort once and then you win and then you go home. I think a lot of times folks in my generation have been hard-wired to focus on immediate gratification. And this is not going to be an immediate gratification kind of win. This is the work of a generation and there will be failures along the way, but every failure makes the next success more probable. And the only real failure is when you choose not to try again. And I think we, as a movement, have to be about continuing to empower even when the going gets difficult, even when we have short-term failures along the way. And that has to be the commitment that we make, because right now, there’s too much on the line to give up.

DHARNA NOOR: Abdul Al-Sayed, chair of Southpaw Michigan, thanks so much for being here today.

ABDUL AL-SAYED: Thank you for having me, appreciate it.

DHARNA NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Dharna Noor is a staff writer at Earther, Gizmodo's climate vertical.