Why Do Politicians Ignore Environmental Issues?
Nina Turner, the former Ohio State Senator, argues that environmental issues don’t reach politicians’ radar because they disproportionately affect poor communities and because big donors don’t want them to
KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News Network in Baltimore. I’m Kim Brown.
At least one person is dead after heavy rains triggered major flash floods in and around Raleigh, North Carolina, over the past couple of days. The Crabtree Creek, just north of downtown, rose 17 feet in 24 hours since Monday. Governor Roy Cooper said on Tuesday that, quote, “We’ve seen rainfall like we haven’t seen since Hurricane Matthew.” And I must note that these recent rains in North Carolina were not triggered by a hurricane, FYI.
Climate change is happening, but in addition, some American communities and cities are bearing the brunt of environmental justice problems. Think of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, the lead contamination of the soil and water in East Chicago, Illinois, and of course the ongoing resistance by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in North Dakota against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
So why aren’t we seeing major political action on these problems? Why do both major political parties, essentially the people who are in charge of our government, why do they make the environment and ancillary issue, instead of giving it the urgency and the priority that it obviously deserves?
Well, to discuss this today, we’re joined by Nina Turner. She is a former state senator of Ohio. She was also a principle surrogate for Senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign of 2016, and she’s also the host of the upcoming Real News program, the Nina Turner Show. She joins us today from Ohio, I assume. Nina, where are you at today?
NINA TURNER: Yes, I am in Cleveland, Ohio, today.
KIM BROWN: Welcome. Well, as always, we’re glad to have you here, Nina. So, Senator, let’s break this down into sort of two parts, if we could, like the environment at large with rising seas, more powerful storms, and hurricanes and the like, and then environmental justice part, the sort of willful neglect of citizens in communities like Baltimore, like Cleveland, like Flint and countless others across the country.
Let’s start here, if we could, with the environmental justice perspective. Why is it that the major parties, both Republican and Democrat, don’t seem to make the issues like lead contamination, like air pollution, like all these different public health impacts that are a direct result of environmental toxicity?
NINA TURNER: Mm-hmm. And thank you for that, Kim. The major reason is because those communities that are the most impacted tend to be your poorer and browner communities, and I don’t want to leave out our Appalachian sisters and brothers, but they tend to be poorer, and so politicians and politics dictate that you answer to the people who vote the most, and you also answer to the people who give the most money, and that is the unfortunate aspect of politics right now.
KIM BROWN: And let’s also take another look at a piece that was published on the grist.org, because it’s not just the political parties who ignore these communities and ignore these issues. The major media outlets also do a very paltry job of giving time and attention to climate change stories, and stories about environmental justice.
You know, Flint, I hate to put it like this, but was actually pretty fortunate that someone like Rachel Maddow from MSNBC seized upon the story and took it national, although it sort of faded from the headlines, but had it not been for a major news outlet breaking the story for the rest of the country, we would not have known about it. But that is not really typical of these environmental justice problems that are affecting countless communities across this country.
NINA TURNER: Yeah. True that, Kim, and yes, big ups to Rachel Maddow and her team, and I wish more outlets would do exactly what we’re doing right here at The Real News, because the one thing that we do have in common has human beings, and not just in our country, but all across the world, is that we need a stable environment. We need Mother Nature –- we need Mother Earth –- to be well, and we are making her sick.
And so extreme weather that you identified in your introduction, droughts, all of those things have an impact on how we get food or if we get food, whether or not people are moved by push and pull factors that happen because something is not going right with the environment. And you know, it’s not sexy enough; it doesn’t get as many clicks as some of the other things. One thing in the media, if it bleeds, it leads, well, it’s not bleeding enough.
But there is going to be a day of reckoning, Kim, and we all know that, And while Flint is the canary in the coalmine –- I read a study. I think Rutgers University did it. But that there are 3,000 other municipalities and areas in the United States of America that have higher lead levels than Flint.
And so whether it’s old pipes or lead in the paint, or lead in the soil where children play in the playground, this is a serious issue because lead can destroy the cognizant capacity or the brain capacity, the quality of life for so many young people. So to me this should be the number one priority because it impacts every single other thing that we care about.
KIM BROWN: And, Nina, that’s an excellent point. As you noted, a lot of these frontline communities, here in Baltimore there’s been a decades-long problem with lead poisoning of children. In East Chicago, Illinois, they had to…
NINA TURNER: Cleveland, too, Kim. Cleveland too.
KIM BROWN: Cleveland. Well, talk about…
NINA TURNER: Yeah.
KIM BROWN: Nina, that’s something a lot of people don’t know. Tell us what’s happening in Cleveland on the environmental justice front.
NINA TURNER: Lead paint. We have some of the highest levels in the country, and even around the Cleveland Clinic, and I know many of your viewers have heard of the amazing, wonderful, tremendous Cleveland Clinic –- which it is –- but the communities in and around the Cleveland Clinic, and I use that for emphasis, have some of the largest lead contamination in the country and nobody thinks about that, and a lot of that has to do with the faulty pipes.
And so as we look at infrastructure reform, Kim, infrastructure investments –- we know that Mr. Trump said that he wanted to put about… invest about a trillion dollars of our taxpayers’ money into infrastructure –- that is something that I could support — because all of our major cities and areas across this country need infrastructure investment starting with our pipes. We are killing our children and we’re doing a disservice to future generations, but we’re really doing a disservice to the children who are living and breathing on this earth right now.
KIM BROWN: Nina, I want to talk to you about political engagement around these issues, particularly coming from communities of color. I was at the March for Science last Saturday, and obviously, The Real News, we are going to be present at the People’s Climate March happening this Saturday, April 29th, in Washington, and cities around the country. And here’s what I saw. I saw a lot of concerned white folks. I saw a handful of people of color. I saw even fewer black people out there.
Now, I know and you know that black communities and communities of color care about the environment that surrounds them. But I don’t see us represented in these types of actions. So what is happening here? There seems to be a bit of either a messaging disconnect — I certainly don’t think it’s apathy from these communities. I know these places care about what’s happening to them. But I don’t see that type of representation when it comes to action on the environmental front in terms of bodies in the street, feet on the ground.
NINA TURNER: Mm-hmm.
KIM BROWN: What can we do to engage these communities in the sense that they are viewed as a political force to be reckoned with when it comes to the poisoning of where they live?
NINA TURNER: Yeah. I mean it is a messaging gap. I think that’s part of it, and then it’s not knowing. You know, there’s a scripture that says we pay from the lack of knowledge and we, the collective we, those in the movement, must recognize that they have to do more to bring a little pop of color to this movement, but also do more to communicate what is really at stake.
And I believe like you do that if these communities had more information and were able to connect the dots about why that matters to them, why they should be concerned–from whether or not it’s their children being poisoned by lead, or the fact that the infrastructure in most of these major cities are so old that we have to act right now — is really about getting that information and knowledge to them.
And I would argue that the political class has even more of a responsibility that when they’re out there holding these communities forums and these town halls, they should be taking the lead.
But we don’t get big ups … to the activist community out there. They’re really trying to spread the word. We need to have more partnerships with our churches. As you know in the African-American community and in the Hispanic community, the churches are communal… a communal activity.
So I think if we bring in some other stakeholders like our faith-based community, that would go a long way into spreading the word and connecting the dots, because what we have to say to people, we have to draw the picture or put down the bread crumbs, if you will, as to why it should matter to them. Why is it connected to them? And I don’t think a lot of that work has been done yet.
But we can do it. We should do it and we must do it because those communities are the most vulnerable.
KIM BROWN: When we talk about political accountability, Senator Turner, I am put in the mindset of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign where he spoke quite often about the need to address climate change and make it a priority.
I don’t know about Cleveland, but I know here in Baltimore, there has not been a whole lot of accountability for the lead poisoning crisis. As I said, going back decades. No one’s ever been voted out of office because they didn’t do enough action around lead testing and lead poisoning prevention.
So how can we make this an issue that politicians and elected officials will be held accountable on, and how can we help to make it more of a priority for the two major political parties?
NINA TURNER: Well, each of us… you know, this great change, any great change, whether it’s here in our country or in Baltimore, Cleveland or in the nation or the world, really comes from the bottom to the top. And so we need the forces, more forces of people power to make sure that our elected officials know that out of all the priorities that are being expressed that environmental justice or climate change should be in the top three.
You know, you mentioned Senator Sanders, Kim, and I remember a debate –- and I don’t know if you remember this particular debate –- but Senator Sanders said that climate change was the number one, and I think they were talking about war at the time, and he said that climate change was the number one threat to our country and to the world. And he almost got laughed off the stage because people wanted to talk about Syria and they wanted to talk about perpetual war, but he laid it out there, and in that moment, showing his leadership that he was going to stick to what he believed was the biggest threat.
And I certainly agree with him on that, that if you have droughts and people can’t get food, if you have lack of water, and people can’t get something to drink and even when you do have water it’s tainted water, when we’re messing with the cycles of spring, summer, fall and winter, all of those things have an impact on our quality of life as human beings.
And you know what, Kim? If we don’t –- we, the collective we –- if we don’t do something to change this actively in our own homes, our own communities and this nation, we are giving a death sentence to generations yet unborn, and that is why we all have to care about it.
So can we go put some cool on climate justice, we’re going to put some cool on this and get more people engaged, because we cannot do it without the grassroots.
KIM BROWN: Well, Nina, let me ask you, from your personal perspective, do you agree with Senator Sanders? Is climate change the number one threat facing the global population, not just the wars that are occurring in different pockets around the planet?
NINA TURNER: I do. I never thought that I would feel that way. You know, you mentioned how communities of color –- I mean, for me, it’s about income and wealth inequality and voting –- those have always been my key foundational issues, but when you think about the whole notion that in order for us to fight for any of those things, we have to have an earth that is stable.
We have to have clean water, we have to have fresh air, and this is happening all over the world, and people are being displaced. We think we have a refugee crisis now. Imagine if we had a major catastrophe linked to the earth, linked to major storms. That will impact all of us. So, absolutely, climate change has to be up there in the top three, because it is the nexus to everything else that we care about.
So, yes, the Senator was right, and he was bold and brave not to change his stance on that, even though he was taunted for saying that.
KIM BROWN: And, Senator Sanders definitely pulled his opponent at the time, Hillary Clinton, leftward on those issues. I even think he even spurred President Obama at the time, pulled him a little leftward on that to spur along the Paris Climate Agreement that the United States is a signatory on. So…
NINA TURNER: Unfortunately, our current president… (laughs) …doesn’t care about any of that, and that’s why we can’t wait on him or wait on his administration. We must continue to push, and big ups to the scientists. Now, Kim, you know, now, when you get the scientists upset, you’re saying something, and for them to come out as a collective, as a profession, that really cares about this world, and they care about what they do every single day, that is a big deal. We ought to listen to the scientists because they know, and they really are the prophets speaking out before we get to such a crisis that we can’t do anything about it.
So, thank you so much, and I hope –- Kim, we should tell… listen, the viewers should get involved.
KIM BROWN: Well, I think our viewers are definitely engaged. There is going to be a contingent in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, April 29th, for the People’s Global Climate March and we’re going to be out there broadcasting live. And this past Saturday, for the March for Science, as you said, Nina, when you make the introverts mad…
NINA TURNER: That’s right.
KIM BROWN: …when it turns into Revenge of the Nerds, you may have a problem there.
NINA TURNER: There it is. Absolutely.
KIM BROWN: And I call scientists “nerds” lovingly, by the way. We’ve been joined today by former state senator of Ohio, Nina Turner. Look for her upcoming program, The Nina Turner Show, right here on The Real News Network.
Senator Turner, as always, pleasure to speak with you. We enjoyed having you here.
NINA TURNER: You, too, darlin’. Thank you so much, and thank you, Real News, for bringing the real news that people can use.