On December 11th, the North County Chapter of Amnesty International awarded SanDiego350 their Digna Ochoa award. Below are the comments by SD350 executive director Masada Disenhouse to students and Amnesty members gathered at Buena Vista High School.
Good afternoon Amnesty International friends, and RBV / MV students!
It’s such a pleasure to be here with you today and I’m grateful and honored to receive the Digna Ochoa award on behalf of SanDiego350.
Climate change is fundamentally a human rights issue. Millions of people are suffering from the devastating effects of the climate crisis now, and this problem will increase exponentially in coming years if we don’t shift to a sustainable economy.
This is an environmental racism issue, because the people most impacted by climate change are those who did the least to cause it, primarily people of color.
After a tropical cyclone hit the southeast coast of Mozambique in 2019, 146,000 people were displaced and had to be rehoused, and nearly 2 million people needed assistance. The cyclone damaged 100,000 homes, destroyed a million acres of crops, and demolished a billion dollars worth of infrastructure.
Entire populations of low-lying Pacific islands are being forced to abandon their homes forever, primarily because they can no longer access clean drinking water due to sea level rise contaminating their aquifers.
This year saw deadly heatwaves in Pakistan, unprecedented wildfires in Greece, and severe flooding in Germany and China. In Madagascar, a prolonged and intense drought drove 1 million people to the brink of famine. In the Pacific Northwest hundreds died during a heat wave that shattered records.
Here in California, we’re still pumping trillions of gallons of oil a year – and the people living near those wells, who suffer from respiratory illnesses, heart disease, preterm births and other health problems, are primarily people of color.
People migrate from their homes in big numbers when they can’t access the most basic human needs and rights. Every year more people face hunger, displacement, unemployment, illness and death due to climate change.
In 2020 the number of people forcibly displaced by weather-related disasters and other climate impacts was 31 million, a sharp increase compared to a few years earlier.
And climate change is just getting started.
Today, 1% of the world is a barely livable hot zone. By 2070, when you all will be your grandparents’ age, that portion could be up to 19%. Billions of people who live in these areas will be forced to migrate because of unlivable heat, drought, flooding and other impacts. The UN recently estimated that by 2050, 143 million people from South America, Subsaharan Africa, and Southeast Asia will be forced to flee their homes because of climate change.
And unless these people are able to move to more liveable places, more and more of them will face war – and death. Already, many of the world’s enduring conflicts have been tied to climate related drought, including Syria and Darfur.
Covid gave us front row seats to how climate change will disproportionately impact more vulnerable groups of people. How it exacerbated existing inequalities related to race, wealth and gender. And how unprepared we are to face a global disaster.
But climate change will impact far more people. And there is no vaccine for climate change.
So how do we stop climate change and climate injustice? How do we ensure that vulnerable people are protected from the devastating impacts of climate change?
First of all it’s important to recognize that climate change is a political problem. We’ve understood the science since before I was born. We know that we need to shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy, from cars to transit, from extraction to reforestation.
There’s a reason that our government hasn’t acted on climate. And it’s the same reason there is such a chasm in this county between the haves and the have nots. Why access to clean air and good health is correlated to skin color. Why we’ve been going backwards on reproductive rights for my entire lifetime to the point where Roe v. Wade could be overturned. Why Black people in this country still live in fear of police brutality 58 years after MLK’s I have a Dream speech. Why union membership is at an all time low and workers are forced into a gig economy that denies them a living wage, health insurance and paid time off. Why what should have been a straightforward scientific problem was deliberately turned into a divisive political issue by the fossil fuel industry.
And that is because our government is not by the people for the people. It is by and for the almighty dollar, which mostly means by and for the corporations.
I won’t sugar coat it for you. This is a pretty dark time in American history. We’ve seen an increase in hate crimes against Asians and jews. The violence at the US Capitol. Censoring books on race and human rights. People making up their own facts because they don’t want to face reality.
But that’s not the way it has to be. And I for one, am not ready to despair. Even though we face challenges, people in other generations have risen up and overcome – and we can too.
Our power starts with the dream of a different world… A world where your skin color or gender or where you were born do not determine your value or potential. Where everyone has the right to clean air and water. To a livable climate. To a safe place to live. To employment that sustains their family.
You are in a position to bring this dream to fruition. Throughout American history, youth have led some of the biggest shifts towards justice, often bringing a radical edge that the urgency of the problem requires. Young people were at the forefront of the women’s suffrage movement, the Civil Rights movement, ending the Vietnam war, the same sex marriage movement, and the immigration rights movement. Increasingly, youth are leading fights for climate action and climate justice. And in this fight youth have more standing than anyone else.
This is why SanDiego350 invests a lot of our resources into training, mentoring and empowering youth to take meaningful action to combat climate change and climate injustice.
What we don’t have is time. Many of these past efforts took decades if not centuries to win. Many continue to this day. But this fight… the outcome of this fight will be decided in the next several years. This is not some day. This is not about gradual change. This is now or never.
So what should we do?
Speak Up! Digna Ochoa , who this award is named for, was a courageous human rights lawyer in Mexico who persevered in representing environmental activists and raised human rights abuses by government authorities despite extreme threats to her life, and who was in fact killed for her persistence. We can honor her sacrifice by raising our voices up for human rights, for justice and for science driven solutions. Do what you’re doing today. By being here today to “write for rights” you’re inspiring others to action, and you’re making a difference! Don’t let your voice be silenced. Don’t let what matters be kept in the dark. Speak truth to power. Educate yourself and your network. Don’t allow what Martin Luther King Jr called “the appalling silence of the good people” to stand in the way of the just, sustainable future we all dream of.
Educate, organize, and vote.
While young people have the most to lose from climate change, they’re also least likely to vote. And that’s partially intentional – understanding that young people tend to lean progressive, conservative forces have made it harder for college students to vote where they go to school and to get acceptable IDs. But that’s shifting. In the 2020 presidential election, over 50% of people ages 18-29 voted – higher than any prior election. So that’s good. But you know what? Almost 80% of people over 60 voted. I know most of you can’t vote just yet, but all of you will be able to very soon. And your mission is not just to vote, but to educate, organize and turn out everyone you know. Because we will not succeed if we are not able to replace government officials with those who will prioritize a livable future.
To quote former President Obama “So I’m going to need all of you to educate your classmates, your colleagues, your parents, your friends. Tell them what’s at stake. Speak up at town halls, church groups, PTA meetings. Push back on misinformation. Speak up for the facts. Broaden the circle of those who are willing to stand up for our future.
“Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution. [ ] Remind everyone who represents you at every level of government that sheltering future generations against the ravages of climate change is a prerequisite for your vote.” (I urge you to watch that 2013 speech)
Together, we have the power to rise up, to overturn the shackles of injustice and corporate power and to fight for our future. Fight for our right to live healthy, happy lives. For the rights of those who come after us. And I for one am all in. Are you with me?