COVID-19 has forced everyone around the world to change the way they live. Before the pandemic hit, however, there was another global crisis impacting people’s health and economic security. NASA predicts that the continuous increase in global temperatures will result in more frequent droughts and heat waves, more intense hurricanes and more ice melting from the Arctic, causing sea levels to rise up to eight feet in the next 80 years. While these issues might seem far into the future, there are many environmental problems that people are facing right now.
In the state of New York, environmental organizations are fighting for access to clean water and clean air for their communities despite obstacles created by the pandemic. Food & Water Watch, a national nonprofit founded in 2005, works on a variety of environmental issues including industrial pollution, the spread of diseases by factory farms and the privatization of water.
“We work very closely with some wonderful groups in Buffalo that were contending with, you might say, an epidemic of water shutoffs that became particularly acute with the pandemic because of the absolute imperative for people to be able to wash their hands,” said New York senior organizer Eric Weltman.
As millions of people all over the country lost their jobs during the pandemic, many were unable to pay rent or their utility bills, resulting in widespread water shutoffs. In June, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill banning utility shutoffs until March 31, 2021, at the latest. This landmark piece of legislation is one of many that Food & Water Watch has lobbied elected officials to pass.
Another of the organization’s major goals was realized in 2014 when Cuomo banned fracking in New York State. However, this has not prevented the construction of other fossil fuel projects including pipelines and fracking power plants, which Food & Water Watch has fought against in order to protect communities from exposure to harmful pollution. Weltman says that the pandemic has not slowed down the progress on this campaign or any of the other work that his organization continues to do.
“We have a range of tools at our disposal to interact with people. And let's be clear, I mean, we love to see people,” Weltman said. “We miss seeing a lot of our favorite activists and allies face to face but….we've got Twitter, we've got Facebook, we've got email, we've got texting, we've got Zoom, we've got Instagram — even old-fashioned telephones.”
Weltman continued to list all of the ways Food & Water Watch has adapted to the pandemic including calling elected officials, hosting webinars, and sending out petitions. In the past, the nonprofit rented buses to transport people from New York City to Albany to lobby in the state’s capital. Now, inspired by the marches for Black Lives Matter, Weltman and his colleagues have held outdoor rallies where people are required to socially distance and wear masks.
Despite not being able to meet with fellow activists or speak with elected officials in person, Weltman has found the silver lining to an online approach.
“You're able to invite more people to attend and are able to invite more guest speakers. If you want to hold a Zoom meeting and have a guest speaker from, you know, Los Angeles or Honolulu or wherever, you just do it,” he said. “People are still craving connection and we’re providing it.”
Just a little more than 60 miles north of New York City on the Hudson River, one of the organizations that Food & Water Watch works with faces its own battle with access to clean water. In the historical district of Newburgh, generations of people have been plagued by a variety of illnesses including cancer and compromised immune systems. The Newburgh Clean Water Project (NCWP) believes the source of this hardship is the long-term contamination of their community’s water sources.
“So we're fighting lead in our water pipes and in our paint,” said Tamsin Hollo, one of NCWP’s Steering Committee Members. “We're fighting the PFAS. We're fighting PCBs in the Hudson River. We're fighting generations of manufacturing pollution. And most recently, we're fighting this massive fracked gas power plant expansion just three miles from the center of Newburgh.”
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), PFAS is an umbrella term for man-made chemicals that do not break down easily over time and have been shown to result in a number of health issues including low birth weight for infants, compromised immune systems, thyroid problems and cancer. PCBs are organic chemicals used in industrial and commercial processes that can result in cancer, neurological issues and many other health problems.
Deborah Brown, also a member of the Steering Committee and one of the people who founded NCWP in 2017, said that continuous industrialization has created a cycle of pollution, beginning with the construction of the Stewart Air National Guard Base in 1934.
“The (New York State) Department of Health dropped our watershed from its maps very conveniently to allow the (New York State) Department of Transportation and the New York New Jersey Port Authority to build a highway right on our watersheds,” Brown said. “There are storm drains so if there was some kind of accident, if there was some kind of spill of chemicals or anything, it goes right into our reservoir.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Newburgh’s population is mostly Latino and African American. The EPA has recognized that environmental issues disproportionately impact communities of color and that these communities do not receive the same protections that predominantly white areas do. On top of this, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that communities of color have been at a higher risk from COVID-19 due to “long-standing systemic health and social inequities.”
“There definitely is a trend. I think just the term ‘environmental justice community’ was coined because of the relationship between poverty, race, and contamination,” Brown said. “When you go around the country, where does the coal ash go? Where do all the really toxic end products of the American lifestyle go? They tend to go to the places where poor people live and where people are the least listened to.”
To combat these issues, NCWP successfully advocated to expand blood testing for harmful chemicals by the New York State Department of Health and demanded that the information also be provided in Spanish. Before the pandemic, NCWP held in-person events where people would break bread and share information to be prepared when different government agencies like the Department of Defense held community meetings about pollution coming from the air base. NCWP also held watershed tours where people could go see how the streams running near big box stores like Kohl’s and Home Depot carried trash into various water sources.
Now during the pandemic, the grassroots organization continues to work with colleagues like Food & Water Watch to campaign against a number of issues such as preventing a power plant in Newburgh that operates only a few days each year from becoming a fracked gas plant that would operate year-round. Throughout New York, 150 elected officials, including members of the State Senate and State Assembly, signed a letter urging Cuomo to stop the upgrade of Danskammer Generating Station and prevent Newburgh residents from being exposed to “the brunt of air pollution.”
“Right here, right now, this community cannot survive yet another source of pollution,” Hollo said.
In addition to partnering with other organizations, NCWP also relies on social media and webinars to get the word out on the dangers of contaminated water and fossil fuel emissions. According to Hollo, who runs NCWP’s social media accounts, there are pros and cons to strictly virtual advocacy.
“Not having that face to face interaction, not having something on paper, I think, has not been the best way to reach out to our communities of color,” she said.
Hollo went on to explain that many people in her community only speak Spanish or French Creole but because NCWP is a small volunteer-based grassroots organization with limited funding, they can’t afford instant translation for webinars and other online events.
“I guess I'll just say it's a double-edged sword,” she said. “You may think you're reaching, you know, hundreds of thousands of people and you are, but are you reaching all the people for whom this is the most important issue and for whom this is really a life threatening issue?”
Despite these limitations, both Brown and Hollo have been astonished with how effectively social media has mobilized young people.
“Young people have created a different way of voicing their concerns and certainly the Latinx community has definitely come out strong in Newburgh against Danskammer (power plant),” Hollo said.
She also noted that many of the older members of the community were concerned about their vulnerability to COVID-19 and were unable to protest in person, creating a unique call to action.
“(Young people) had to carry the torch and they did it beautifully,” Hollo said.
One organization has used social media as not only a tool for change but as a way to create a network of young climate advocates. New York Youth Climate Leaders (NY2CL) is a coalition of 70 individual groups across New York State, founded in November 2019. The leaders of the organization are either in their late teens or completing their first semester of college, while members across the state range from middle schoolers to college undergraduates. The coalition focuses on policy surrounding fossil fuels, renewable energy, health care, and the Green New Deal.
According to social media director Sophie Campbell, NY2CL has taken advantage of the digital space by organizing virtual strikes, creating a social media campaign to support the New York Fossil Fuel Divestment Act, pushing petitions on multiple platforms, and encouraging people to call elected officials such as Cuomo and New York State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. The organization also created a podcast and hosts informational webinars with guest speakers and panels.
“I think the biggest thing was figuring out how to do our events and actions virtually,” Campbell said. “Social media has really been the key to activism and just keeping the climate movement alive during the pandemic.”
Even though NY2CL has fully embraced online tools for activism, Campbell recognizes the limitations of not being able to conduct business as usual in person.
“Climate anxiety is very real, especially in youth organizers, and taking away that socialization aspect makes it very difficult to keep going and keep fighting all the time,” she said. “But I think that, you know, we're getting through it. And we're finding ways to have more fun, engaging in activities, not just activism, because I think that with everyone doing school virtually, and being on Zoom all day every day, people are less excited to get on the call for climate organizing.”
To prevent members from feeling isolated or disengaged, Campbell has incorporated more art and activities into her social media strategy.
During Earth Week, NY2CL held a climate art challenge where people could post individual creations inspired by the environment. The organization also hosted a virtual open mic via Instagram, launched the #HugSomethingGreen challenge and drew slogans with chalk about divesting from fossil fuels in front of Stewart-Cousins' office.
“We're working on a lot more kinds of artistic, creative projects for our social media, for our website, for engagement, because I think that art and activism is incredibly important to the climate movement, both for engagement and (because) it's just such a good way to spread awareness.”
Despite the variety of strategies and individual obstacles, all three organizations agreed on the importance of continuing their work during the pandemic.
“Climate change is the greatest threat that humanity faces because now, more than ever, we need access to safe (and) clean food, air, and water,” said Food & Water Watch’s Eric Weltman.