Students, activists discuss climate change

By Anjana Murali / Staff Writer

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Reverend Lennox Yearwood lived through Hurricane Katrina and lost loved ones to the storm. 

Even without the devastation of the area, he says, his home state would still be called Cancer Alley, with water runoffs, smog and pollution causing children to suffer from asthma, bronchitis and emphysema.

This is the reality that Yearwood and Michael Leon Guerrero are working hard to change. 

The Global Studies Center hosted the fourth part of a five-part video dialogue series titled “The Culture Against Climate Change” on Thursday afternoon in Posvar Hall. Yearwood and Guerrero both spoke via video call to more than 50 people, including students, faculty and community members. Yearwood is president of the Hip Hop Caucus, a civil and human rights organization, and Guerrero is interim national coordinator of the Our Power Campaign, a climate justice alliance. 

The series is sponsored by the Department of Sociology, the urban studies program and supported by the Office of the Provost and the Year of Sustainability.

Through their activism, Yearwood and Guerrero seek to create an environmental movement that stresses the importance of intersectionality by encouraging minorities to be vocal in the climate change conversation.

“Minorities in poor communities bear the brunt of horrible environmental conditions,” Yearwood said.

According to Yearwood, the face of the environmental movement has typically been that of the “white, tree-hugging, Birkenstock-wearing hippie.”

The white-dominated face of the movement has not only silenced those voices but created a culture of exclusivity that discourages minorities from joining the movement, according to Yearwood.

Yearwood and Guerrero’s efforts are focused on mobilizing the oppressed voices to join the movement. They aim to create a movement whose demographics more closely reflect those that are marginalized. 

The Hip Hop Caucus released an album called HOME, which features black artists including Elle Varner, Ne-Yo and Crystal Waters. This not only serves as a “soundtrack to the movement,” Yearwood said, but also serves to create a movement that is more attractive to all types of people. 

The album, according to Yearwood, was created to use people’s culture to connect them to the climate change conversation.

So far, his efforts have proven effective.

Yearwood, along with 500,000 people, participated in the People’s Climate March in New York last September. At the forefront of the march were the disenfranchised and young voices, he said. This march was crucial in not only the fight for more environmental world but also in changing the face of the movement, Yearwood said.

For Guerrero, the march was important because it “opened up political space for victories to happen” and demonstrated “what a movement in the U.S. needs to look like in order to affect the climate or any other issue.”

Other wins for the environmental movement, he said, include young people’s environmental support, the recent veto of the Keystone XL Pipeline and the New York coalition that banned fracking. 

Both Yearwood and Guerrero stressed the value of young voices in the climate change movement.

“The most powerful thing about 2014 is that young people came together and said we must desegregate the climate movement if we are truly to change the path we are on,” Yearwood said. 

Jackie Smith, a sociology professor and director of graduate studies, co-organized the series and was inspired through her experience with integrating technology into the classroom and recognizing ways to bring in outside resources to aid in the learning process.

Smith emphasized the value of learning from the people who are currently making change in the world.

“We learn about businesses and governments, but we don’t learn the nuts and bolts of people trying to make the world better and how that happens,” Smith said. “Learning from the people who are doing it is really key.”

Sarah Khalbuss, a senior sociology and global studies major, also helped to organize the event.

“It’s great, because I’m very interested in social justice issues like race and class,” Khalbuss said. “I actually have come to really care about this issue more because I’ve been helping out.”

For Khalbuss, it took getting involved with climate change organizations at Pitt to learn how minority groups and low-income communities are affected by climate change. 

“The event has to do with the fact that minority groups and low-income communities are disproportionately affected by climate change, and that’s something I don’t think I had that much awareness about … how connected these movements are,” Khalbuss said. 

Throughout the event, both Yearwood and Guerrero stressed the importance of transitioning from fossil fuels to clean energy so that future generations will be able to have access to clean air and water.

 “So, when the next generation rises up, they will say, ‘We are fossil-free at last. Thank God almighty, we are fossil-free at last,’” Yearwood said. 

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