Climate Action

To save the planet, learn from the civil rights movement, says Hip Hop Caucus President Rev. Yearwood

As the world marks half a century of the modern environmental movement, we need to learn from the lessons of the American civil rights movement, says Hip Hop Caucus Founder and CEO Reverend Lennox Yearwood, Jr., in a recent interview with Earth Day Network.

Between droughts, rising sea levels, mass extinctions and extreme weather, climate change is irreversibly upsetting the balance of nature. And while climate change affects everyone, those most hurt by climate change will be people of color and of lower income, findings backed by the United States government’s Fourth Annual Climate Assessment.  

Those same communities are already disproportionately affected by environmental hazards: According to the NAACP, among those living within three miles of a coal power plant, 39 percent are people of color.

“Climate change is a civil rights issue — we have a right to clean air and clean water,” says Yearwood. As communities have fought — and continue to fight — for equality, now “we’re also fighting for existence.”

Yearwood is the founder and CEO of Hip Hop Caucus, whose mission is to empower communities impacted by injustice to create a “just, sustainable, more prosperous world for all,” according to the organization’s website. That world includes an inhabitable Earth in the face of our current climate crisis.

“[Hip Hop Caucus] lifts up the issues of young people and people of color to be at the forefront of this conversation [about climate change],” says Yearwood. “We are looking at the voices of those who are first and worst impacted by the climate crisis and finding ways to fight pollution and poverty at the same time.”

To fight these dual challenges as Earth Day marks 50 years, Yearwood says the environmental community must learn from the lessons of another movement born in the 20th century: the civil rights movement.

“There are so many people on every part of this planet who are saying, ‘Enough is enough,’” says Yearwood. “That will to put your body against the gears of the machine and put it to a grinding halt, that mentality from the civil rights movement is what we need right now — to be uncompromisingly fighting for justice, for our planet, and fighting for future generations.”

That will to put your body against the gears of the machine and put it to a grinding halt, that mentality from the civil rights movement is what we need right now.

REv. Lennox Yearwood, Jr.

Yearwood points to three key learnings from the civil rights movement that the modern environmental movement must adopt to take on our climate crisis.

First, the fight for civil rights in the U.S. required “endurance, bravery and grit” to push our society to a safer, more just path. Yearwood argues that the environmental movement of today must adopt a similarly stubborn tenacity to keep fighting in the face of setbacks and adversity.

The civil rights movement also required an understanding of structural dynamics and the importance of politics and legislation. Activists understood that individual action alone wasn’t enough to tip the scales. Racial equality required policy change, and the leaders of the civil rights movement understood and wielded legislative power strategically.

As Yearwood puts it, “They understood that demonstration without legislation leads to frustration.”

Finally, Yearwood advises that the environmental movement needs to push voting. In the 1960s, Yearwood says, “even though sometimes their vote wasn’t protected, and they were still fighting for their vote to count in many places, [the civil rights movement] still understood the power of the vote, they understood what that meant, and so they didn’t give it away.”

“In this election year, we must do everything to ensure that our vote matters, and that we’re out voting,” Yearwood continues.

The year 2020 has 65 major elections worldwide, including the U.S. presidential election. An electorate that holds public officials accountable is a powerful thing, and today’s environmental movement, if unified, can build the pressure to do that.

“We’re putting the policies in place that will begin to reverse the climate crisis,” says Yearwood. “From every sector, we’re all coming on one accord.”

April 22, 2020, will mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Now is the time to gather the energy, chaos and passions of our era and mobilize it into action. Join an Earth Day event near you or register one.

“We have a generation that is rising up,” says Yearwood. “We’ve seen destruction, but we’ve also seen the will of humanity. The power of people to survive and fight for the next generation is all that matters.”