There have been times throughout history when great people have acted to better unfortunate situations. However, if we examine social and political history you will find times where man had great opportunity to act but did not. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. challenged this behavior by questioning, “How can a man sleep through a revolution?” With a consensus among scientists that climate change is attributed to human activities, we have a unique opportunity unlike any other to exhibit consciousness in the face of a changing climate.
To me, the Peoples Climate March represents a gathering of the masses to make known that we are not asleep; that we recognize the revolution, embrace its challenges, and welcome equitable solutions that will reshape a more sustainable world for all. The Peoples Climate March is more than just a day of people walking in the streets of DC. It is a collection of love and of care and represents the power of people and sound science.
As a scientist I am well aware of the impacts of climate change. We know with great confidence that the sea level will rise, flooding homes and cities. In the Northeast, for example, the region depends on aging infrastructure that is highly vulnerable to climate hazards. The Northeast has experienced a greater recent increase in extreme precipitation than any other region in the U.S. This increase combined with coastal flooding creates major risk for damage to homes, buildings, infrastructure and life.
We also know that in my home, the Southeast, there will be an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, leaving many vulnerable. We understand that temperatures are rising, increasing heat-related illness and deaths. The U.S. average temperature has increased by 1.3 degrees F to 1.9 degrees F since 1895. According to data from NASA and NOAA, 2016 was the warmest year on record. We know that there will be changes in precipitation causing floods in some areas and droughts in others; and that there will be expansion of the geographic range of hosts of vectors that cause diseases like Zika. These are just a few of the changes we expect to occur.
These changes will mean that people will have to migrate to new areas of the country, more people will deal with the associated mental and emotional health issues, and culture will be lost when people migrate from communities where their family has lived for years to new lands. All of these are consequences of a changing climate, but will those who are rich, those who have made millions of dollars off of carbon intensive industries, have to experience this burden? Not to the extent that the general population will. The impacts of climate change will not be felt evenly.
People of color, Indigenous Peoples, and low-income communities bear disproportionate burdens from climate change itself, from ill-designed policies to prevent it, and from side effects of the energy systems that cause it. Climate change affects our health, housing, economic well-being, culture, and social stability. As a graduate of Tuskegee University, a Historically Black College (HBCU), utilizing knowledge to benefit people, specifically the most vulnerable, was a foundational part of my training. I believe that using my knowledge to work towards a more just climate change agenda is very important and that we must ensure that equity, including addressing racism and classism, be at the cornerstone of all policies and plans.
Climate change presents an opportunity for producing a more just society with a more robust economy. We can provide jobs that help traditionally impoverished people get out of poverty; we can create policies that improve the lives of all, and promote a more sustainable framework for living on this Earth.
I am marching because as a scientist, I understand the science that leads to the impacts; as a person, I empathize with those who are vulnerable to those impacts; and as a global citizen, I have a duty to take action.
Elise Marie Tolbert is an ASPPH/EPA Environmental Health Fellow in EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, Indoor Environments Division. She is currently working on a project to better understand and address heat stress among vulnerable populations. Through her work, she hopes to ensure equity in environmental planning and decision-making. Elise received her B.S. in Environmental Science from Tuskegee University and Masters of Public Health in Environmental Health Sciences from the University of Michigan. Elise’s research has explored how pollutants and unhealthy features of the environment can affect human health. Furthermore, she seeks to examine how improving environmental health can produce social justice. Ms. Tolbert’s interests include climate change, environmental health policy, environmental justice and sustainable community development. Her future interest includes continuing her professional education and developing a career in which she can strategically work to alleviate the burden of environmental hazards, specifically for historically disadvantaged populations. Elise also serves as the Founder and Director of Next Step Up, a mentoring and tutoring program in Tuskegee, AL. Through this program, college students assist local high school students by providing the skills and motivation needed to reach their academic and personal goals.
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