Nina Turner: Why Do Politicians Ignore Environmental Issues?

Lambert here: It’s interesting to watch Turner working out how to frame complex, systemic issues in very simple language. See especially the discussion of lead and Flint.

Kim Brown of The Real News Network interviews Nina Turner, a former state senator of Ohio, and a principal surrogate for Senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign of 2016.

The transcript:

KIM BROWN: Welcome. Well, as always, we’re glad to have you here, Nina. So, Senator, let’s break this down into sort of two parts, if we could, like the environment at large with rising seas, more powerful storms, and hurricanes and the like, and then environmental justice part, the sort of willful neglect of citizens in communities like Baltimore, like Cleveland, like Flint and countless others across the country.

Let’s start here, if we could, with the environmental justice perspective. Why is it that the major parties, both Republican and Democrat, don’t seem to make the issues like lead contamination, like air pollution, like all these different public health impacts that are a direct result of environmental toxicity?

NINA TURNER: Mm-hmm. And thank you for that, Kim. The major reason is because those communities that are the most impacted tend to be your poorer and browner communities, and I don’t want to leave out our Appalachian sisters and brothers, but they tend to be poorer, and so politicians and politics dictate that you answer to the people who vote the most, and you also answer to the people who give the most money, and that is the unfortunate aspect of politics right now.

KIM BROWN: And let’s also take another look at a piece that was published on the, because it’s not just the political parties who ignore these communities and ignore these issues. The major media outlets also do a very paltry job of giving time and attention to climate change stories, and stories about environmental justice.

You know, Flint, I hate to put it like this, but was actually pretty fortunate that someone like Rachel Maddow from MSNBC seized upon the story and took it national, although it sort of faded from the headlines, but had it not been for a major news outlet breaking the story for the rest of the country, we would not have known about it. But that is not really typical of these environmental justice problems that are affecting countless communities across this country.

NINA TURNER: Yeah. True that, Kim, and yes, big ups to Rachel Maddow and her team, and I wish more outlets would do exactly what we’re doing right here at The Real News, because the one thing that we do have in common has human beings, and not just in our country, but all across the world, is that we need a stable environment. We need Mother Nature – we need Mother Earth – to be well, and we are making her sick.

And so extreme weather… droughts, all of those things have an impact on how we get food or if we get food, whether or not people are moved by push and pull factors that happen because something is not going right with the environment. And you know, it’s not sexy enough; it doesn’t get as many clicks as some of the other things. One thing in the media, if it bleeds, it leads, well, it’s not bleeding enough.

But there is going to be a day of reckoning, Kim, and we all know that. And while Flint is the canary in the coalmine – I read a study. I think Rutgers University did it. But that there are 3,000 other municipalities and areas in the United States of America that have higher lead levels than Flint.

And so whether it’s old pipes or lead in the paint, or lead in the soil where children play in the playground, this is a serious issue because lead can destroy the cognizant capacity or the brain capacity, the quality of life for so many young people. So to me this should be the number one priority because it impacts every single other thing that we care about.

KIM BROWN: And, Nina, that’s an excellent point. As you noted, a lot of these frontline communities, here in Baltimore there’s been a decades-long problem with lead poisoning of children. In East Chicago, Illinois, they had to…

NINA TURNER: Cleveland, too, Kim. Cleveland too.

KIM BROWN: Cleveland. Well, talk about…


KIM BROWN: Nina, that’s something a lot of people don’t know. Tell us what’s happening in Cleveland on the environmental justice front.

NINA TURNER: Lead paint. We have some of the highest levels in the country, and even around the Cleveland Clinic, and I know many of your viewers have heard of the amazing, wonderful, tremendous Cleveland Clinic – which it is – but the communities in and around the Cleveland Clinic, and I use that for emphasis, have some of the largest lead contamination in the country and nobody thinks about that, and a lot of that has to do with the faulty pipes.

And so as we look at infrastructure reform, Kim, infrastructure investments – we know that Mr. Trump said that he wanted to put about… invest about a trillion dollars of our taxpayers’ money into infrastructure – that is something that I could support — because all of our major cities and areas across this country need infrastructure investment starting with our pipes. We are killing our children and we’re doing a disservice to future generations, but we’re really doing a disservice to the children who are living and breathing on this earth right now.

KIM BROWN: Nina, I want to talk to you about political engagement around these issues, particularly coming from communities of color. I was at the March for Science last Saturday, and obviously, The Real News, we are going to be present at the People’s Climate March happening this Saturday, April 29th, in Washington, and cities around the country. And here’s what I saw. I saw a lot of concerned white folks. I saw a handful of people of color. I saw even fewer black people out there.

Now, I know and you know that black communities and communities of color care about the environment that surrounds them. But I don’t see us represented in these types of actions. So what is happening here? There seems to be a bit of either a messaging disconnect — I certainly don’t think it’s apathy from these communities. I know these places care about what’s happening to them. But I don’t see that type of representation when it comes to action on the environmental front in terms of bodies in the street, feet on the ground.


KIM BROWN: What can we do to engage these communities in the sense that they are viewed as a political force to be reckoned with when it comes to the poisoning of where they live?

NINA TURNER: Yeah. I mean it is a messaging gap. I think that’s part of it, and then it’s not knowing. You know, there’s a scripture that says we pay from the lack of knowledge and we, the collective we, those in the movement, must recognize that they have to do more to bring a little pop of color to this movement, but also do more to communicate what is really at stake.

And I believe like you do that if these communities had more information and were able to connect the dots about why that matters to them, why they should be concerned–from whether or not it’s their children being poisoned by lead, or the fact that the infrastructure in most of these major cities are so old that we have to act right now — is really about getting that information and knowledge to them.

And I would argue that the political class has even more of a responsibility that when they’re out there holding these communities forums and these town halls, they should be taking the lead.

But we don’t get big ups … to the activist community out there. They’re really trying to spread the word. We need to have more partnerships with our churches. As you know in the African-American community and in the Hispanic community, the churches are communal… a communal activity.

So I think if we bring in some other stakeholders like our faith-based community, that would go a long way into spreading the word and connecting the dots, because what we have to say to people, we have to draw the picture or put down the bread crumbs, if you will, as to why it should matter to them. Why is it connected to them? And I don’t think a lot of that work has been done yet.

But we can do it. We should do it and we must do it because those communities are the most vulnerable.

KIM BROWN: When we talk about political accountability, Senator Turner, I am put in the mindset of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign where he spoke quite often about the need to address climate change and make it a priority.

I don’t know about Cleveland, but I know here in Baltimore, there has not been a whole lot of accountability for the lead poisoning crisis. As I said, going back decades. No one’s ever been voted out of office because they didn’t do enough action around lead testing and lead poisoning prevention.

So how can we make this an issue that politicians and elected officials will be held accountable on, and how can we help to make it more of a priority for the two major political parties?

NINA TURNER: Well, each of us… you know, this great change, any great change, whether it’s here in our country or in Baltimore, Cleveland or in the nation or the world, really comes from the bottom to the top. And so we need the forces, more forces of people power to make sure that our elected officials know that out of all the priorities that are being expressed that environmental justice or climate change should be in the top three.

You know, you mentioned Senator Sanders, Kim, and I remember a debate – and I don’t know if you remember this particular debate – but Senator Sanders said that climate change was the number one, and I think they were talking about war at the time, and he said that climate change was the number one threat to our country and to the world. And he almost got laughed off the stage because people wanted to talk about Syria and they wanted to talk about perpetual war, but he laid it out there, and in that moment, showing his leadership that he was going to stick to what he believed was the biggest threat.

And I certainly agree with him on that, that if you have droughts and people can’t get food, if you have lack of water, and people can’t get something to drink and even when you do have water it’s tainted water, when we’re messing with the cycles of spring, summer, fall and winter, all of those things have an impact on our quality of life as human beings.

And you know what, Kim? If we don’t – we, the collective we – if we don’t do something to change this actively in our own homes, our own communities and this nation, we are giving a death sentence to generations yet unborn, and that is why we all have to care about it.

So can we go put some cool on climate justice, we’re going to put some cool on this and get more people engaged, because we cannot do it without the grassroots.

KIM BROWN: Well, Nina, let me ask you, from your personal perspective, do you agree with Senator Sanders? Is climate change the number one threat facing the global population, not just the wars that are occurring in different pockets around the planet?

NINA TURNER: I do. I never thought that I would feel that way. You know, you mentioned how communities of color – I mean, for me, it’s about income and wealth inequality and voting – those have always been my key foundational issues, but when you think about the whole notion that in order for us to fight for any of those things, we have to have an earth that is stable.

We have to have clean water, we have to have fresh air, and this is happening all over the world, and people are being displaced. We think we have a refugee crisis now. Imagine if we had a major catastrophe linked to the earth, linked to major storms. That will impact all of us. So, absolutely, climate change has to be up there in the top three, because it is the nexus to everything else that we care about.

So, yes, the Senator was right, and he was bold and brave not to change his stance on that, even though he was taunted for saying that.

KIM BROWN: And, Senator Sanders definitely pulled his opponent at the time, Hillary Clinton, leftward on those issues. I even think he even spurred President Obama at the time, pulled him a little leftward on that to spur along the Paris Climate Agreement that the United States is a signatory on. So…

NINA TURNER: Unfortunately, our current president… (laughs) …doesn’t care about any of that, and that’s why we can’t wait on him or wait on his administration. We must continue to push, and big ups to the scientists. Now, Kim, you know, now, when you get the scientists upset, you’re saying something, and for them to come out as a collective, as a profession, that really cares about this world, and they care about what they do every single day, that is a big deal. We ought to listen to the scientists because they know, and they really are the prophets speaking out before we get to such a crisis that we can’t do anything about it.

So, thank you so much, and I hope – Kim, we should tell… listen, the viewers should get involved.

KIM BROWN: Well, I think our viewers are definitely engaged. There is going to be a contingent in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, April 29th, for the People’s Global Climate March and we’re going to be out there broadcasting live. And this past Saturday, for the March for Science, as you said, Nina, when you make the introverts mad…

NINA TURNER: That’s right.

KIM BROWN: …when it turns into Revenge of the Nerds, you may have a problem there.

NINA TURNER: There it is. Absolutely.

KIM BROWN: And I call scientists “nerds” lovingly, by the way. We’ve been joined today by former state senator of Ohio, Nina Turner. Look for her upcoming program, The Nina Turner Show, right here on The Real News Network.

Senator Turner, as always, pleasure to speak with you. We enjoyed having you here.

NINA TURNER: You, too, darlin’. Thank you so much, and thank you, Real News, for bringing the real news that people can use.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Uahsenaa

    I have nothing but respect for Turner, but there’s an aspect of her analysis that I think is a little off. I’m not sure the victims of oppression need to be told what’s going on (i.e. better PR); they already know.

    And when you look at where and how people protest, it’s clear that the poorer and browner communities can and will do so in great numbers. We saw it in Ferguson, we saw it in Baltimore, we saw it in Charleston, we saw it in LA in ’92, and the list goes on. The fundamental difference is that the downtrodden tend to protest where they live rather than take a bus or plane to D.C. to participate in a showy display at the Capitol. Poor people, by definition, don’t have the money and likely not the time either to make such a trip.

    The people in Flint were protesting long before the national media got involved. And it’s worth noting there was a similar issue (with copper not lead) in the D.C. drinking water a few years earlier (2010?) that the national media ignored but which was very much protested in the local community. It even involved the same team from UVa that tested the water in Flint.

    So, to me, the problem seems to be not so much informing the poor what’s happening to them so much as others actually giving a crap about their plight. It’s the affluent that need the messaging.

    1. Norb

      You are absolutely right. The elite and well off are too busy enjoying their wonderful lives to give a damn. Solving these social problems would take common sacrifice and effort which the well off have proven over and over they have no interest participating in, unless they can turn the effort into a profit generating enterprise.

      Indeed, the messaging needs to be directed at the top. The collective we, as in all classes, have chosen the path of pain and suffering instead of common action. Once again, class conflict is chosen instead of common action. The wealthy elite have had an easier time forming bonds of solidarity. They have the money and power. They are also cynical enough to use the power of hope as a weapon instead of a means of positive change. It is called exploitation, and president Trump is the latest incantation.

      Those on top of the social pyramid have no real fear or concern for their social position. They see violence as the only true method of social control. Violence as a means to bond society together. They are well prepared to meet any challenge to their way of life communicated in the form of violence. War is their way.

      The problem is social evolution. The poor need to learn how not to be exploited. The courier class needs to have more of a collective social conscious. The truly wealthy elite need to have less power over everyone else. That is a lot of messaging.

  2. A Trustee

    A couple of factors that got missed:

    If you don’t actually vote the politicians feel you don’t count.
    If the crisis will not hit until after my next election it’s so far down the road that I don’t care.

    I recognize that there are exceptions but they are few and far apart.

    1. Vatch

      If you don’t actually vote the politicians feel you don’t count.

      Yes! Thank you. Voter turnout is much too low in many parts of the country. People could make a difference simply by voting in both the primaries and in the general election.

      I realize this won’t completely solve the problem, because of the influence of big money in politics. Thomas Ferguson, Larry Bartels, Martin Gilens, Benjamin Page, and many others have written about this. But people can make a difference if they actually show up and vote. I know there are many intentional impediments to voting, and people need to push back hard against those. Where the impediments still exist, they need to endure inconvenience, and vote. We don’t have to wait until 2018, there’s a relevant election in just a few weeks.

      The special election in Montana is in a state with one of the worst environmental disasters in the nation: the asbestor poisoning of Libby, Montana:

      I hope the people of Montana turn out in large numbers and vote for Rob Quist, rather than for the strange anti-science candidate Greg Gianforte.

    2. Wisdom Seeker

      Re: “If you don’t actually vote the politicians feel you don’t count.”

      You have to go one step further than just voting. You have to vote for candidates who aren’t corporate-sponsored, and avoid voting for the corporate candidates.

      When the hard choices get made, the corporate-sponsored politicians will represent the corporate financial interests, not your interests. So if you mistakenly vote for a Corporate Candidate, your vote still doesn’t count.

      This isn’t a Democrat vs. Republican issue – the corporate interests find ways to buy both major parties. And even when they can’t buy the elected officials, they find ways to buy their aides, support team, cabinet members etc.

      Voters need to maintain constant vigilance and confront their elected officials when those officials are no longer representing their constituents.

      1. Vatch

        You have to go one step further than just voting. You have to vote for candidates who aren’t corporate-sponsored, and avoid voting for the corporate candidates.

        This is why it is crucial for people to vote in primaries. When turnout is low in the primaries, the establishment corporate tools will almost always win in both the Democratic primary and the Republican primary, and then it will be too late in the general election to do anything about it.

        1. witters

          This touching faith in the act of voting, this magical belief that voting = democracy, this proceduralist fantasy of the vote as an essential and uncontaminated good and so the essential political act, strikes me as the very best defence neoliberalism has.

          1. Vatch

            How so? When people don’t vote, the oligarchs win. Are you aware of how low average voter turnout is in the United States? I’ve provide this information before, but as a reminder, here it is again. Starting in 1904, the voter turnout in U.S. Presidential elections has always been lower than 70%. On a few occasions it has been under 50% (1920, 1924, 1996; only 50.3% in 2000). In the off year elections, the turnout is usually much lower.

        2. Big River Bandido

          120,000 people in Brooklyn attempted to do just that in the NYS primary a little over a year ago, and were blocked from voting by the Democratic Party. (The margin between the candidates, statewide, was only half that.)

          The same story was replicated in state after state.

          Not saying that people shouldn’t vote in primaries, but that your faith in the integrity of the process is belied by history.

          1. Vatch

            I’m aware of the many ways that the establishment political parties hinder voting. But if people don’t try to vote, they won’t even be aware of some of the hindrances, such as the Brooklyn events to which you refer. I don’t have faith in the integrity of the process. What I have is faith in the potential of the process, but only if people get involved. If you sit on the sidelines, you automatically lose.

    3. Left in Wisconsin

      In most cities with high minority populations, the congressional representatives are among the most liberal in the House. Also true at the state level with State Reps and Senators. One can debate how left and/or how effective many of these representatives are, but the argument that poor people don’t get good representation because they don’t vote in high enough percentages has some serious weaknesses. There is no evidence of which I am aware that shows poor communities with higher voting percentages get better representation, or more left or liberal representation, or that the representatives they have would be more effective if vote totals were higher.

      I typically hear this argument expressed by frustrated progressives (who don’t live in poor/minority-heavy communities) with regard to the state or federal level – if the poor and/or minorities voted in higher percentages, we would have better governors or senators or presidents (i.e. D’s instead of R’s).

  3. JTMcPhee

    …and to answer the question posed, politicians get paid not to “address” environmental issues. Pretty straightforward.

    And like all of the banditry and plain stupidity (see the link today on the five laws of human stupidity) that’s adding up to what’s happening, the individual actors are pretty much immune to the effects of their acts. Ocean rise in 2040 is not an issue for, e.g., my Senator Bill “Asstronaut” Nelson, who will be dead after a very comfortable life long before his feet might get wet…

  4. Susan the other

    The best thing to do to fix water contamination is to do the infra on a city by city basis. All cities in the US have done their waterworks and maintained them. Cities know how to do this. It’s overkill to get too global about it. If the patient is sick and dying you save the patient, you do not lead a march to save the world. Just fix the pipes and filter the water and call it good for now. The most helpful thing would be to encourage muni bond purchases. Right now muni bonds (last i heard) were off the list of investments the Fed was willing to buy. If not the Fed then all states could do a state bank which would have a mandate to buy munis. I don’t understand why we are so paralyzed about clean water. Just fix it. Locally.

    1. nowhere

      I know it’s secondary to water, but do municipal broadband at the same time and get a twofer investment.

    2. Wisdom Seeker

      Re: muni bond support. Legally the Federal Reserve can only purchase securities backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. Government. And more to the point, the rate differences between munis and Treasuries (“spreads”) are set by all market participants; if the Fed overpays others will dump and there won’t be any real change in yields. Munis are federally subsidized already by allowing the interest to be deductible from income taxes, but that mainly benefits high-income individual taxpayers. To really juice the muni market, other more democratic tax incentives would be better.

  5. DH

    Environmental impacts play out over decades. Preventing them requires dollars today. Corporations want to privatize their profits in the short-term and it takes society a while to realize that the long-term environmental costs have been socialized across society. In the case of things like lead pipes and faucets, and lead in surface soils then there are no corporate deep pockets out there to use CERCLA laws to get them to clean it up. That only leaves government or landlords to clean it up, which requires dollars today.

    Environmental pollution built up through the 1800s and 1900s. It wasn’t until the socialized costs became so huge that they were unacceptable to white suburban voters, that the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts were signed into law around 1970-72. That was followed in the 1980-86 CERCLA and RCRA Acts. Many of these acts were signed by very conservative Republican presidents (Nixon and Reagan).

    So politicians need to understand the socialized costs in dollars and cents, potential lost tax dollars, potential lost income, costs for incarcerating people with lead poisoning committing crimes, etc.

    We see something similar with the War on Drugs now where the obvious solution was to lock people up when it was just inner city minorities that were the focus. Now there is much more discussion about treating addiction since opioids became a white suburbia and rural problem, so the socialized costs are becoming very obvious, even to politicians.

  6. craazyman

    Wow. I didn’t know she’d gotten into politics. Gotta love their version of Proud Mary even though Ike was a wacko.

      1. craazyman

        Well I didn’t go vote for a Hillary
        Bernie was my man every night and day
        And I havent’ lost a minute of sleepin
        worryin bout the way that things might have been

        Go Barry keep on $peechin
        Dema-gogs ‘ull keeep on screechin
        While I’m rollin yeah
        I’m rollin yeah
        Rollin down Da Rivah

        They cooked a lot a lies bout Russia
        Pumped a lot a pain thru the TV screen
        All I ever saw wuz hackos acting shltty
        Till I hitched my ride on the Bernie Bro dream

        Go Barry keep on $peechin
        Dema-gogs ‘ull keeep on screechin
        But I’m rollin yeah
        I’m rollin yeah
        I’m a rollin down Da Rivah

  7. ewmayer

    Q: Why Do Politicians Ignore Environmental Issues?
    A: Because Groaf trumps all other considerations.
    The End.

  8. Expat

    This is not a political issue, it’s a human issue. Both sides are guilty of this. And all voters have their own issues they put forward while ignoring consequences.

    Environmental and pollution tend to be long-term. Even when the pollution is obvious, the effects tend to be longer term. Politicians work on election cycles, not generational cycles. Voters also work on short-term schedules. Those who are directly affected protest but might be too small a group for others to care, not vote themselves or simply keep voting for the same people!

    The environment is nebulous unless it affects you directly. The idea of protecting one species of owl at the cost of hundreds of jobs and a big industrial project seems stupid to all but a few Sierra Club members. Surely we can afford one owl to keep America great, right? No one counts all of the owls that get wiped out; we account for them one at a time and it doesn’t seem worthwhile to save them or bad to lose them.

    Humans are what they are: self-destructive, greedy, short-sighted, and willfully ignorant.

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