Guest speaker Nicky Sheats looked to his audience for opinions and ideas on urban environmental issues at the third and final installment of the Water Watch-sponsored Interdisciplinary Lecture Series on Global Environmental Issues called “Closer to Home: Global Warming at the Intersection of Civil Rights and Environmentalism” at the College last Wednesday.
Sheats, director of the Center for the Urban Environment at Thomas Edison State College, said Hurricane Katrina acted as a domestic wake-up call.
He asked his audience, “What would you have done to get those people out of there and get them safe?”
Sheats discussed his proposal for a “climate change and environmental initiative in which climate change scientists, environmental justice advocates and civil rights leaders would get together in the same room to talk about air pollution and its effects on urban communities.”
He explained that poor and urban communities are the first to get hit by global warming and are more vulnerable to its effects.
“I couldn’t conceive that in the United States people could go without water,” Sheats said about what he felt after seeing the destruction of Katrina on television.
Sheats went on to talk about the problems concerning urban communities and “fine particle matter,” tiny airborne particles also known as soot. It is produced by diesel engines, smokestacks, burning and boilers and is unavoidably drawn into the lungs.
Fine particle matter has been linked to the asthma epidemic and is believed to kill about 60,000 people in the United States each year.
“The more science they do on it, the more deadly it becomes,” Sheats said. These particles are more prevalent in urban areas, and Trenton has the fifth-highest rate of particle matter-related deaths.
Unfortunately, Sheats explained, people in urban communities have been largely left out of the discussion of how to correct this problem.
Students then offered their own suggestions of how to eliminate some of these issues, such as federal regulation of companies, disaster relief, prevention efforts and mitigation of the effects on the poor in general.
“I think there is a strong economic link,” Andrew Mathe, publicity coordinator for Water Watch, said.
Mathe went on to suggest a push toward alternative energy, such as solar power, which will ultimately cut down on particle matter and help urban communities as well.
Still, other students questioned how successful a push toward alternative energy would be in urban areas where people are often struggling just to get by.
“I felt the suggestions were interesting and optimistic, but found it hard to believe people living in poor urban areas would be able to switch to alternative energy when they have much more immediate problems to deal with,” Anjali Dutt, sophomore psychology major, said.
Sheats then mentioned a proposal in which Abbott school districts, low-income urban districts that receive additional state funding to better their schools, would build solar-powered schools in their attempted reconstruction of the area. This would be a way to link global warming and new ideas with urban communities.
Sheats has also worked to bring awareness to urban areas through an educational project in which students from Trenton, Camden and Newark go into their communities and test the air for fine particle matter.
The lecture series saw its biggest turnout yet at Sheats’ speech.
“I’m happy to get these new ideas that aren’t addressed in classes out there,” Mathe said. “Learning doesn’t have to end when you walk out the classroom door.”