Skip to main content

We can’t fight climate change without Black voters

Given that Black people are more likely to be "Alarmed" or "Concerned" about global warming than those who identified as white, we can’t fight climate change without Black voters.

Sign advocating voting by Black community

Scene from the Collard Green Caucus food giveaway in December in Brunswick, Georgia, sponsored by Black Voters Matter and A Better Glynn, held at Ballard Park. Image via Shutterstock/Michael Scott Milner

[GreenBiz publishes a range of perspectives on the transition to a clean economy. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the position of GreenBiz.]

I have been personally concerned about how existing U.S. laws that were intended to support environmental protection and racial equality could be undone by the Supreme Court. The increasingly used "major questions doctrine" threatens to erode protections that have been baked into lawmaking books for decades, leaving the future landscape of policies impacting environmental and social issues hanging in uncertainty.

Up for debate are aspects of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court. This legislation has been a bedrock for equality since 1965. In addition to strengthening our democracy, I believe the Voting Rights Act also empowers us to achieve meaningful climate action.

Without strong voting protection laws and mechanisms, we can expect to see Black voter participation decline. Consequently, Black political interests — which are closely aligned with fighting climate change — will be represented less.

Consider a 2022 exit poll of midterm voters that found that outside of the economy, climate change has broken through as a top priority among Black voters. Climate change is equally as important to our community as crime, racism and abortion, the same survey discovered. Even research from Pew Research Center corroborates this narrative. This discovery is not surprising.

My understanding of the indelible connection between the necessity for Black voter protection and care for climate change didn’t begin recently. It’s been with me ever since I learned to read and write.

Dampening Black voter turnout thwarts our ability to use the fundamental tools of our democracy to develop the systemic, institutional change we’ll need to build a more sustainable, equitable world.

When I was only 4, I wrote into my composition notebook on the very first page, "I’m a Democrat," with a capital D. My penmanship was loose and uneven, somewhere between stick-figure people and a sun drawn into the corner with squiggly rays. On the front cover was one of the "I voted" stickers I eagerly grabbed from Grandma Dorothy every time she took me with her to the polling booths. I’d squeeze in there behind the voting booth curtain pretending like I was voting too. "We weren’t always able to do this," she once said.

Along my elementary school walls were larger than life murals of Black heroes such as Harriet Tubman, Thurgood Marshall and Jackie Robinson. My nearly-all-Black classmates and I perambulated among those halls, dwarfed in their literal and metaphorical shadows. Their effigies evoked inspirational reminders that there was nothing wrong with wanting a better world for us and others. A world full of love, peace and justice was possible.

We deserved that world. We could even create that world.

I had a hero myself. Her name was Grandma Dorothy. When she was principal of Sneed Middle School, she was not only the first principal in the school’s history but also the first Black woman to open a majority-white school anywhere in Florence County, South Carolina. That meant many of her students’ white parents met their first Black principal, Mrs. Dorothy M. T. Ellerbe. She wasn’t the first Black woman who could achieve this; instead, she was the first Black woman that white people allowed to achieve this, and she made sure I understood that.

Born in 1943 as the youngest of seven children, Grandma Dorothy grew up helping her siblings plant, grow and harvest tobacco because back in those days, her parents didn’t have a TV in the bedroom and smoking tobacco was "good for you." In rural Florence County, mechanized farm equipment hadn’t quite reached Savannah Grove Road, and having lots of kids toil the earth was the only livelihood most Black folks knew.

As Grandma Dorothy grew into adulthood, she had a different plan, however, and set her eyes on college. She swore she’d never bend down to pick tobacco ever again — the heat, the gnats and the back-breaking hours were far from ideal working conditions.

She never lost her connection with the land, though. Her award-winning garden became a floral haven where I played for much of my formative years through seventh grade. Songbirds coaxed me into gentle siestas, and with spring’s slackening grip, bees and butterflies hummed delightfully together in the longer summer days. I watched her as she pruned the roses, how she touched their waxy leaves and seemed to breathe life into them. Sometimes I’d be right there assisting her, just like I was in the polling booths.

Grandma Dorothy exemplified the importance of maintaining a healthy relationship with nature, thereby encouraging me to be an environmental steward. Her lessons are what move me to do the work I do today in corporate sustainability. At the same time, she also exemplified how voting was a critical vehicle to effectuate the laws that are important to us. But just like Grandma Dorothy had taught, we weren’t always able to do this.

I am now witnessing myself the erosion of the voting protections that we once guaranteed through the Voting Rights Act.

The Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder abolished the system of "federal preclearance," which required jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination in voting to seek pre-approval before making any changes to their voting practices. Most recently, in 2021, the Court’s Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee decision made it more difficult for voting rights plaintiffs to challenge racially discriminatory voting laws in court.

In a country without the protections of the Voting Rights Act, strict voter ID laws, restrictions on Sunday voting — such as those proposed last year in Georgia and Texas — and polling place consolidation have already been especially harmful for the turnout of racial and ethnic minorities.

As sustainability professionals, we must support collective action of both the grassroots and groundtops variety to increase voter participation in communities that have been marginalized, such as Black communities. Given that Black people, according to a Yale study, are more likely to be "Alarmed" or "Concerned" about global warming than those who identified as white, in fact, we can’t fight climate change without Black voters.

Dampening Black voter turnout thwarts our ability to use the fundamental tools of our democracy to develop the systemic, institutional change we’ll need to build a more sustainable, equitable world.

The views reflected in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ernst & Young LLP or other members of the global EY organization.

More on this topic

More by This Author