Savannah environmental justice advocate delivers passionate speech at climate conference

Our Changing Climate

ATLANTA (WSAV) — For a moment on Friday, leaders and experts from across Georgia might’ve thought they’d mistakenly stumbled into a sermon rather than Dr. Mildred McClain’s energetic speech on climate change.

The passionate delivery of McClain, the executive director of the Savannah-based Harambee House/Citizens For Environmental Justice, resonated with many of those tuned into her speech at the 2019 Georgia Climate Conference.

That was made clear by the eruptions of applause heard at key points throughout — and the standing ovation the crowd gave McClain at the end.

“It may seem like I’m an old Baptist preacher, but I’m not,” McClain told the audience at the Emory Conference Center Hotel.

Hear Dr. Mildred McClain’s entire Georgia Climate Conference speech at the SoundCloud link above.
“Some have called me a bootleg preacher, but I just have to be a little emotional because I’m a mother. I’m a grandmother,” McClain said.

Her 9-year-old grandson lives in Atlanta, she shared.

“I want to make sure that he has a future, an earth and an environment in which he can grow and thrive,” she said to a round of applause. 

“It is his inherent right as a human being, but more importantly, I’ve fought for it since I was 13, and I’ll soon be 71,” McClain said.

And no, she told the crowd, she’s not tired yet.

Without allies, friends and partnerships beyond our own backyard, we’re not gonna make it.”

Dr. Mildred McClain , Harambee House/Citizens For Environmental Justice

The Georgetown, Georgia, native began her work on climate change and efforts in environmental justice years ago, she said during her speech. She woke up one morning in 1992 to headlines that over 200,000 picocuries of tritium had leaked from the Savannah River nuclear plant into the river. 

That was more than 10 times the level of 20,000 picocuries per liter that the federal government considered safe to drink, the New York Times reported.

Throughout her McClain’s speech, she emphasized that poorer communities, like Savannah’s Hudson Hill, would be the worst impacted by the changing climate and negative environmental impacts, while wealthier areas were more likely to adapt and recover.

“Less economically fortunate individuals are more vulnerable because they are less likely to have resources, including something as simple in Hudson Hill, my friend, as air conditioning and well-insulated homes,” McClain said.

“Better planning through investments, infrastructure and public health strategies can help communities like Hudson Hill become more resilient in a warming world,” she said. 

From sea level rise to heat waves, extreme weather and disease outbreaks, McClain told the audience, each unique climate change-related challenge would require locally suitable solutions to prepare for and to respond to the impacts that people oftentimes deal with daily.

“In Savannah, we don’t even have to have a hurricane,” she said.

“It just has to rain hard and it’s gonna flood,and I mean flood bad. And the residents of Hudson Hill? They’re not prepared!” she added.

McClain told News 3 that she attended the conference to represent Savannah because many residents, particularly the African American population, of the major coastal city live in vulnerable neighborhoods.

“They lack the resources to be able to respond to the many impacts that climate change will bring to our coast as well as our local neighborhoods,” she said.

Some of the solutions, according to McClain, include putting emergency planning strategies into place that equip local residents with the tools and knowledge they need to adequately respond to those impacts.

“They [can] become their own community environmental response team,” she said.

Leaders, McClain added, should provide financial and technical help for both adaptation and resiliency.

She also noted the importance of connecting with other organizations, groups and resources beyond just local areas in the battle against climate change.

“Without allies, friends and partnerships beyond our own backyard, we’re not gonna make it,” McClain said.

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