Last week I went to the White House to call on President Obama to give us a climate plan. Joining with partners and allies at 350.org, Forecast the Facts, and Credo Action, we brought the names of almost 250,000 people to the Obama administration. We also heard from survivors of Hurricane Sandy about how climate chaos affected their lives.
Sandy survivors are on the front lines of global warming. They are living through the sometimes-excruciating effects of the extreme weather that, scientists tell us, has already arrived as a result of human-generated alterations to our earth’s climate. Their stories show us how climate change disproportionately affects underserved communities, poor communities, and communities of color. People whose resources are already stretched thin. People whose voices are underrepresented in the halls of power.
Climate Survivor: Chef Malisa Rivera, Far Rockaway, New York
One of the Sandy survivors who I had the honor of meeting was Malisa Rivera, the founder and executive director of Culinary Kids Culinary Arts Initiatives, a youth organization in Far Rockaway, New York. She came to Washington DC to call on President Obama to take a leadership role in addressing climate change.
Chef Rivera is a mom of five who used to be a caterer. She founded her organization in 2007 after gun violence had claimed the life of her daughter’s best friend – a teenager who was gunned down in front of her home. Rivera felt she had to create more opportunities for youth in the neighborhood to do meaningful work, to build community, and to have fun.
For Rivera, keeping kids off the streets means teaching them about sustainability. Culinary Kids Culinary Arts Initiatives teaches sustainable agriculture and aquaculture through cooking and farming activities in Far Rockaway, and reaches well over 50 young people with its programming each year.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, teaching sustainability has taken on new meaning. That’s because Hurricane Sandy destroyed Rivera’s urban farm. Seven feet of water rushed in with the storm surge, ruining Rivera’s mowers, her tools, and all other farm equipment that was on site. The storm surge also left behind salt and mud, possibly contaminated with industrial chemicals. Rivera won’t know whether the soil is contaminated until they test the soil in the spring, when the weather warms. Concerned about soil quality, Rivera plans to build raised beds and commercial soil in advance of the growing season – if she can pull together the people power and the money.
We cannot be certain that climate change caused Sandy to slam into New York and New Jersey with a vengeance. But we do know that scientists expect more extreme weather events as a result of climate change. The Sandys, the Nemos, the wildfires and the droughts – these are all predicted to increase. And with each extreme weather event, there are dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of Chef Riveras.
Since the storm, Rivera has been trying to get volunteers to do cleanup at the urban farm site. She says it’s important to lift the spirits of the kids in the neighborhood. “They are suffering psychological trauma from the hurricane,” she says.
Rivera has had a hard time getting assistance. “FEMA has done nothing for us,” she says. Moreover, she wants to see a plan to prevent this kind of crisis in the future. “We need more than dunes and jetties,” Rivera says. “We can’t wait ten years” to address climate change, she says. “This is affecting everyone.”
We agree. Moms Clean Air Force joined tens of thousands of committed souls last weekend to demand climate action in Washington. For Chef Malisa Rivera’s urban farm. For our children’s future. Let’s lift those spades – and plant those seeds – and join together for a robust response to climate chaos. Sitting on our hands just isn’t an answer.