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  • Writer's pictureDan Robinson

Driving the Fight Against Climate Change and Racism

Nineteen years ago, my family and I traveled the Lake Michigan Circle Tour. The previous year, we moved from Manistee, MI to the Green Bay, WI area, so in 2003, we decided it was time to visit old friends back in Michigan. To make an adventure of it, we followed the Tour’s route around Lake Michigan (more or less), with detours along the way to see Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, to walk through Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore (which is now a National Park) in Indiana, and to see friends camping near Ludington, MI. We then spent a few days catching up with folks in Manistee. During the last days of our trip, we hiked through Sleeping Bear Dunes, stayed overnight in St. Ignace where Lakes Michigan and Huron meet, and followed the Lake Michigan shoreline through the Upper Peninsula, before ending our Tour back in Wisconsin.

Lake Michigan Beach in South Haven, MI (photo by Dan Robinson)

An Electric Vehicle and the Open Road?

That trip is one of my family’s favorite memories, and it came to mind when I recently read about the Lake Michigan Circuit tour, the plan to put electric vehicle charging stations all around the Lake. Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin are collaborating on the effort to promote tourism. According to a press release about the Circuit Tour, the chargers (some of which are already in place) will be installed at state parks, small businesses, and tourist attractions along the 1,100-mile route in the next few years.

On the one hand, this is great news. Anything we can do to eliminate fossil fuel consumption and lower the impact of climate change on the Great Lakes and around the world is a good thing. While I don’t personally (yet) have an electric vehicle, I hope my wife and I can afford an EV in the next couple of years. I’d love the chance to enjoy a gasoline-free trip around Lake Michigan.

On the other hand, the Electric Vehicle Circuit Tour article came out the same week as a piece titled, “EV chargers in Detroit go where ‘money is,’ leaving Black neighborhoods out.” This article points out that EV chargers are being installed disproportionately in wealthy white communities and bypassing communities of color or low-income communities. An investigation by the Washington Post and a study by Humboldt State University looked at the installation of EV charging stations in other parts of the country and came to the same conclusion.

Addressing Climate Change Takes an Important Step

Just a few days after those articles were published, the U.S. Senate passed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), a bill that would spend almost $370 billion on addressing climate change, including tax credits for electric vehicle purchases. That’s a big deal and, again, a very good thing. However, legitimate concerns have been raised by environmental justice advocates about some of the bill’s provisions. Compromises within the bill provide funding for increased oil and gas drilling, which helps the fossil fuel industry to survive. That industry, in turn, will continue contributing to climate change and disproportionately polluting communities of color and frontline communities.

During an interview with the PBS Newshour on the day the bill passed the Senate, the Rev. Lennox Yearwood, Jr., President and CEO of the Hip Hop Caucus, praised the IRA for its overall impact on climate change. However, he also pointed out the bill’s support for increased oil and gas drilling, and the harmful impacts fossil fuels have on communities of color, or “sacrifice zones,” as he described them. Increased drilling means continuing to generate electricity from fossil fuels and continuing to pollute frontline communities located around these fossil fuel plants.

A "Game Changer," but We Still Need to Change the Game

In a 2022 publication about communities located near fossil fuel power plants, the Environmental Protection Agency stated, “Minority, low-income, and indigenous populations frequently bear a disproportionate burden of environmental harms and adverse health outcomes, including the development of heart or lung diseases, such as asthma and bronchitis, increased susceptibility to respiratory and cardiac symptoms, greater numbers of emergency room visits and hospital admissions, and premature deaths.”

We need a transition away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy. That transition, however, needs to be just. It must not continue the structural racism that puts the health and life of so many people of color at risk. In response, the White House has put forth its Justice40 Initiative. This Initiative promises “to deliver at least 40 percent of the overall benefits from Federal investments in climate and clean energy to disadvantaged communities.”

Assuming the House of Representatives passes the Inflation Reduction Act, the legislation will be a “game changer.” The bill can make a real difference in the fight against climate change, but the fight for environmental justice must be a part of that work. Efforts at the local, state, and national levels, like the Justice40 Initiative, must truly address the structural racism in our energy system. The benefits of clean energy need to be felt first in the frontline communities that suffer the most from the current fossil fuel-based economy.

The Spiritual and Moral Thing to Do

From a spiritual and a moral perspective, we are responsible for ensuring the health and well-being of all communities, especially those most vulnerable. A spirituality of the Great Lakes calls us to care for our shared ecosystems, including protecting people in vulnerable frontline communities, around Lake Michigan, and across the Basin.

I look forward to the time when my family and I can make another Circle Tour around Lake Michigan, this time in an electric car. Even more so, though, I look forward to the day when everyone can enjoy a fossil fuel-free trip and a fossil fuel-free life … a life with less pollution, reduced climate change, and better health.

(Full disclosure … my “day job” is serving as an organizer for Solar United Neighbors, a national nonprofit that helps people “go solar, join together, and fight for their energy rights.”)

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