Miles of shoreline that once protected and nourished the Gullah-Geechee are eroding, subjected to harsh storms that have damaged the delicate coastal ecosystem of South Carolina’s Sea Islands. In 2018, when Hurricane Florence caused flooding in Cheraw, contaminated soil containing elevated levels of cancer-causing PCBs from an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site flushed into people’s homes. Bacteria-rich pluff mud that makes up the state’s saltwater marshes could potentially aid in the cleanup, but the marsh grass is waning, and it can’t hold the soil in place. So it washes away.
It’s a straightforward statement of fact that climate change is among the biggest imminent threats to humankind—and Black communities such as those in South Carolina are going to take a disproportionate hit. Contamination, sweltering days, and rising sea levels that drown out the low country are among the issues that have made South Carolina “somewhat of a hot spot in terms of environmental issues,” said Brenda Murphy, the president of the state’s chapter of the NAACP.
South Carolina, like other states in the Southeast, has warmed at a less accelerated rate than other parts of the U.S., according to an August 2016 EPA pamphlet. But as global temperatures continue to rise, South Carolina is likely to experience unstable crop yields, livestock damage, more powerful tropical storms, increased inland flooding, a jump in uncomfortably hot days, and a subsequent increase in the risk of heat-related illnesses.
Democratic candidates have made it a point to include climate change and issues of environmental justice in their policy platforms. The party has had a difficult time engaging with voters on the issue in previous cycles, but this go-around there have been more specific efforts to elevate the topic nationally.
With the South Carolina primary approaching, though, Slate wanted to find out how the candidates are drawing the connection between the Black voters—particularly those in rural areas—they want to reach and the subject of climate change. I asked all 11 Democratic campaigns what they were doing to discuss climate change with Black voters and how they might be personalizing the issue for folks who, for example, may notice that it’s hotter outside or that a food item they like is regularly out of stock, but don’t necessarily link it to climate change or environmental injustice.
Eight campaigns responded (we’ll add more if they reply). Few of them had a specific, tailored effort to address how climate change and environmental injustice affects Black communities in particular and how to engage with them on the subject. Often they presented their work in both the climate sector and racial justice while noting that the two do indeed overlap. Or they mentioned the disparate impact on Black communities in the climate plan, while the policy proposals themselves remained overarching, with nothing as targeted as, say, Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s education plan to pour much-needed funding into historically Black colleges and universities.
But a more nuanced connection could lead to a better understanding of how Black Americans are being affected and will be critical to any campaign initiative to adequately shape policy. The language used and how the issue is perceived is different within Black rural communities, according to Cliff Albright, a co-founder of Black Voters Matter. A change in monthly expenses, such as a utility bill, or the increased frequency and disastrous impact of the past couple of hurricane seasons is how many people notice climate change.
“If you just ask about climate change, you may not get much of a response—which doesn’t mean that we don’t care about climate change,” said Albright. “It just means our entry point is different.”
“America’s Climate Change Plan” was the first policy platform Bennet released upon launching his campaign, a campaign spokesperson said. It calls for the creation of an Office of Climate and Environmental Justice at the EPA and says a Bennet presidency plans to “reorient the organization and mission of the Department of Health and Human Services” as part of a plan to focus on public health, “especially for vulnerable populations.”
The plan emphasizes the need for a “Climate Bank,” which would allot $10 trillion toward fighting climate change while focusing on communities affected heavily by pollution. Two bullet points, about job creation and building an EPA climate office, likewise mention helping communities that have borne the brunt of environmental harm. But there is no specific mention of Black people, or any community of color for that matter.
Bennet traveled to Gulfport, Mississippi, in July, where he met with NAACP Climate Chair Kathy Egland and Ruth Story, the former Gulfport branch president of the NAACP. During that same visit, Bennet met with a group of crabbers and discussed climate change’s impact on local fisheries.
“Vice President Biden knows people of color in rural communities across America are more likely to live in areas most vulnerable to flooding and other climate change–related weather events,” said Jamal Brown, the national press secretary for the Biden campaign.
A piece of Biden’s climate plan states how Black Americans are uniquely affected by climate change. Overall, the plan “holds polluters accountable for the damage they’ve caused, particularly in low-income communities and communities of color, not only due to climate change but the pollution they are pumping into the air that is breathed and into the water that is drunk in those communities,” said Brown. “And it ensures that communities across the country including Flint, Michigan, and Denmark, South Carolina, have access to clean, safe drinking water.”
“Environmental justice must be at the heart of our climate work,” said a campaign spokesperson. “The burden of climate change and pollution too often falls heaviest on low-income and minority communities. As president, Mike will focus federal investments in communities disproportionately impacted by climate pollution.”
Bloomberg recently announced the Greenwood Initiative, focused on economic justice for Black America; it does have one mention of environmental justice. The campaign also released a climate change policy agenda, which includes details about investment in vulnerable communities. A bullet point within the climate change resilience portion of the plan mentions the disparate impact climate change has on Black Americans. Communities of color are mentioned once more in terms of outcomes in his clean transportation plank.
Bloomberg’s campaign said that, in addition to listening to voter concerns on the matter, it has also briefed a number of environmental justice organizations, including the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network and the Greater New Orleans Foundation, on its policy plans.
The Buttigieg campaign has hosted several roundtables in rural South Carolina, including one in Denmark, where conversations regarding environmental justice were featured.
“Climate change is the greatest threat of our time, and often low-income, Black Americans are hit first and hardest,” wrote a spokesperson for the former mayor. “That is why our campaign has made addressing climate change a priority—whether it’s holding pollsters accountable, ensuring Black neighborhoods have the infrastructure and resilience they need to survive and thrive after climate disaster or ensuring our public health systems are equipped to support their needs.”
The spokesperson wrote that Buttigieg’s plan focuses on “gaps in our public health systems and infrastructure that disproportionately affect communities of color and the poor.” The Buttigieg climate plan has a few mentions of Black Americans and the disparate impact. It also mentions “deploy[ing] community-centric resources”—such as sending federal assets to assist during natural disasters—to help communities.
Buttigieg’s “Douglass Plan” offers a bit more nuance into policies that would help Black Americans suffering environmental injustice specifically—including a push to remove lead paint from old houses and the creation of a public health data system.
The Minnesota senator’s campaign pointed Slate to her climate plan, which notes that she would “prioritize assisting [communities of color] as they adapt to the effects of climate change” and make sure they are included within any policy decision making.
Her plan also promises to strengthen the EPA, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, all of which play a role in mitigating the direct and indirect effects felt by communities.
Deshundra Jefferson, a spokesperson for the former Massachusetts governor, said Patrick’s campaign is talking to voters everywhere about the issue of climate change, including those in communities like Round O, South Carolina.
“Rural communities often see and feel the impact first. When we address climate change, we are keeping our most vulnerable communities at the top of mind,” said Jefferson.
Patrick’s climate plan doesn’t have any specific mention of Black people or any community of color, but it does note that “the greatest impact has been and will continue to be on some of the most vulnerable people in the United States and abroad.” The former governor would also seek to bolster EPA cleanup efforts in “communities that have been underserved.” His opportunity agenda mentions that he will make various investments in rural communities.
The Sanders campaign provided several examples of how the Vermont senator is reaching Black rural voters, including his tour of South Carolina’s low country, an area that has been affected by the increased frequency and severity of storms; a climate-focused town hall in Myrtle Beach; an environmental justice town hall in Denmark; and breakfast in Georgetown. Sanders has also visited Williamsburg County, where he toured a local hospital that was closed due to damage sustained in the 2015 thousand-year flood.
Surrogates, according to the campaign, also regularly address climate change when engaging with Black communities.
“Personal storytelling is a huge part of our organizing program, and we’ve done a lot of training with our volunteers on how to have personal and [persuasive] conversations with people they know and with people they don’t know,” said national constituency organizing director Yong Jung Cho.
“Our supporters use their personal stories when they volunteer with our campaign—and study after study shows that it’s one of the best tools of persuasion,” she added.
And, of course, the campaign pointed to Sander’s Green New Deal, which puts forth a number of policy proposals and federal regulations that seek to address the disparate impact Black Americans face in the climate crisis.
Steyer’s plan for climate justice mentions that though “climate change affects us all, it hurts low income communities and communities of color first and worst. The interconnected problems of poverty, systemic racism, and pollution demand urgent solutions.” There is no specific mention of Black Americans.
Axel Adams, the Steyer campaign’s director for African American outreach, explained the ground game in Black communities in an interview with Slate. He said the team engages with voters in meetings at churches and also reaches out to officials and activists. Often campaign staffers talk to folks who aren’t certain that what they’re experiencing is related to climate change, but they do notice changes in weather patterns or food shortages. “They don’t tie it to the ecosystem,” said Adams. “When you explain that to them … they pay more attention to it.”
The same goes for environmental justice: “They know something is happening. A lot of times they know the people in their community are sick—a high rate of asthma, a higher rate of cancers. And they may assume that something is going on in that area, but they don’t know what it is.”
Adams said the Steyer campaign explains that the issues people are noticing could be associated with climate change or environmental injustice. The campaign makes the connection by pointing out food shortages or how certain crops like peaches aren’t growing as great as they once did.
“We make it relative and real,” said Adams.
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