My teacher first taught me about global warming in the third grade. She explained how an increase in greenhouse gases increased the amount of heat that could be trapped in our atmosphere. We discussed how climate change is melting the ice caps polar bears call home, leading to their extinction. We didn’t discuss how the climate crisis was already at our homes.
I grew up with the smell of freshly made salsa from chiles picked from our backyard garden, the bright colors of fruit gifted to us by neighbors, and the sound of off-key singing to Joan Sebastian and Selena Quintanilla. At school, my friends and I slipped between English and Spanish, moving between the topics of our English essay to la quinceanera de nuestra mejor amiga with ease. But looming over my vibrant community was, and is, the fossil fuel industry.
My hometown is in east Houston, Texas, adjacent to the north side of the Houston Ship Channel. Here, petrochemical plants, chemical storage tanks, and receiving ports are just across the road from our homes, schools, and workplaces. On my daily drive to school, it was common to see barges towering over the trees as they made their way through the ship channel. The smell of sulfur from the plants infiltrated the car even with the air conditioning off, causing us to hold our breath or risk a chemical-induced headache. During class, we heard the sirens from the plants, never knowing if they were a simple signal to the workers or a sign of an explosion. Rarely were we told when a chemical leaked, but when we were, we had to shut off the AC in the Texas heat and stay inside until the danger passed. When I close my eyes and remember my fondest memories of high school – band camp, livestock shows, and community service – I can still see the angry red flames billowing out into dark smoke in the distance.
We are told that petrochemical plants bring us jobs and that the minor inconveniences of air and water pollution are worth it. But how can it be worth it when all we get is long-term health effects and a life of fear? Fossil fuel CEOs want us to believe that they are investing in our futures by sponsoring science camps and school supply drives, yet their continued operation is the reason our future is at risk. When I think of the climate crisis, it isn’t some abstract concept; it is the intentional poisoning of my people by those in power who are also fueling the climate crisis.
Damage to the environment and contributions to the climate crisis are part of a virulent cycle: the burning of fossil fuels stripped from the Earth increases world temperatures while severe storms caused by the climate crisis cause massive discharges of pollutants. During Hurricane Harvey, in 2017, toxic chemicals and wastewater were released into the stormwater, both intentionally and accidentally. The largest Harvey-related spill occurred right next to my home. Over 460,000 gallons of gasoline from Magellan Midstream Partners spilled into the Houston Ship Channel and adjacent streams.
These are not one-time occurrences. Every day, my community lives with the fear that another devastating spill or explosion will occur at the numerous petrochemical plants around us. But my community isn’t alone in our fears. Black, Brown, and low-income neighborhoods like mine face similar environmental injustices across the country.
As a student at Michigan State University, I have connected with others who share my experiences. For example, I met Dolores Perales, now a 22-year-old graduate student at the University of Michigan and the environmental and sustainability specialist at the non-profit Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision (SDEV). Since 2013, she has advocated for her community in southwest Detroit, a predominantly Latinx community in the shadow of a nearby oil refinery. Among other projects, Dolores oversees Cadillac Urban Gardens, which provides fresh, culturally relevant produce to residents, and she conducts research on the links between air quality, food availability, race/ethnicity, and the fossil fuel industry. Communities like hers and mine across the country are treated as disposable simply because of our ethnicity, migrant status, and economic status.
These environmental injustices are a direct result of policy decisions, including zoning policies and environmental standards, that only elected officials can change. Although our communities establish community gardens, hold educational meetings, and even speak to our representatives, unless those in power commit to ending our extractive economy and implementing a green future, environmental injustices will only get worse.
In November’s election I am voting at the local, state, and national level with the climate crisis as my top priority because no group of people should be considered disposable. Politicians must stop underestimating the organizing power of young people, especially those of us who have lived through the toxicity that is a result of politicians’ inability, or refusal, to protect us and the environment. We are sharing our stories, building people power, and electing climate champions to ensure we have a livable future.
Jessica Diaz Vazquez is an undergraduate at Michigan State University in the College of Agriculture & Natural Resources