America Ferrera Shares Heartbreaking Climate Change Story in 'Years of Living Dangerously' Episode

America Ferrera Shares Heartbreaking Story of “The Coal Wars” in Episode of 'Years of Living Dangerously'
Courtesy of the NatGeo Network

America Ferrera took a trip to Waukegan, Illinois, a town right outside of Chicago, where she got a front-row seat to an environmental struggle sickening the community – literally: big coal.

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The actress-activist investigated a controversial coal plant in Waukegan, a largely Latinx and Black area, and the negative impacts it's having on people's health and the town's economy for the season finale of the National Geographic's documentary series Years of Living Dangerously.

Ferrera, who has long advocated on issues of climate change, met with a group of activists, backed by the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, who are working to shut down the plant, and the mayor of Waukegan, who has kept it open despite the people's cries.

The hondureña chatted with us about her episode, which airs Wednesday night at 10/9 ET, how climate change is connected to several other human rights issues, what Latinxs can do to combat this environmental justice battle and more.

Your involvement in the movement for environmental justice started before this episode of Years of Living Dangerously. Why is the issue of climate change important to you?

It’s important to me for the same reason it should be important to every single one of us. We are already beginning to see our planet changing in negative ways, and it’s also very quickly becoming not just an environmental issue but also a human issue. This is the only planet we have to live on for now, so there’s so much that is going to be affected by climate change that people don’t necessarily understand quite yet, and this series does an incredible job at showing the interconnectedness of climate change with everything that sustains and matters to us: our ability to live where we live and eat the foods we eat. Issues of immigration, war and conflict will continue to be massively impacted by climate change. Climate change is not one issue; it’s so many different issues. It’s important for all of us.

Your episode centers on big coal, an issue that may not be on many of our readers’ radar. What threat does coal pollution pose to people and environments?

Burning coal has had massive impacts on our environment, CO2 levels and on global warming. The story I undertake in this season is mainly about the effects it’s having on the people who live in the communities where these coal plants have operated and where they continue to operate. What we found in the story is that so many of the people living around these coal plants felt massive impacts on their health. As if that wasn’t important enough, there’s also a massive economic and business risk to these communities that get handicapped and paralyzed by these coal plants and the coal industry that refuses to transition into something that is more beneficial to economies.

This is also a Latinx problem, as the city of Waukegan, which is right outside Chicago, is 70 percent Latinx and African American, meaning that it’s people of color, people like us, who are bearing the brunt of this. Do you think race and ethnicity plays a role in the environmental justice fight?

I think people are becoming aware that if you are a person of color, then you are more likely to be affected by polluted air and undrinkable water, water that’s making you sick, along with other environmental factors. An interesting thing that our story highlights is the idea of organizing and voting, the idea that communities know how to fight back, know how to organize, know how to hold their local officials accountable. They play a role in their local communities by pushing back, forcing their officials to pressure companies to find solutions to these problems. And a large percentage of Waukegan is Latino and Black, people who are economically disadvantaged. A lot goes into why those communities are not organized around political movements or movements of any kind. When you’re struggling to merely survive, to get a job, to keep that job, working tirelessly to just do what’s necessary, there’s very little energy left to do what it takes to push back against powerful energy companies. I saw interesting connections between communities where the abuse of their health is allowed to go on and an economic and educational disenfranchisement that stops those communities from pushing back. If you are a person of color, you’re more likely to be living in an environment that’s making you sick.

That’s horrifying. Throughout the episode, we see Dulce Ortiz, a local Latina who developed asthma from the coal plant, and her team of activists and organizers coming up against major trials, experiencing a lot of defeats, yet still determined to keep the fight going. How would you describe the spirit of the people of Waukegan?

Really, it’s just like anybody else. It takes anger, indignation, having enough of a certain abuse to really organize around an issue. As we see in the episode, there were a lot of disheartening moments for the campaign in Waukegan, to shut down the coal plant and get sites cleaned up for the people’s health and economy. What kept them going was the fact that no one else would stand up for them and their kids and community. They knew if it wasn’t them, no one else would. If they gave up the fight, there would be no fight and they would be allowed to be taken advantage of and ignored by energy companies and elected officials. What gets them going is their own hope and self-respect.

The threat of climate change isn’t going away anytime soon, and with president-elect Donald Trump, who just this week said “nobody real knows” if climate change is real, what are some of your concerns about this issue during his quickly approaching presidency?

I’m terrified. It’s not like we have any time to waste. We’re already behind the ball, and to sit around and wait for this presidency or this administration to pass, we will only be that much further behind. And not only will we be sitting around and waiting, but I’m sure many of the practices that have caused climate change will continue and speed us up in a direction we don’t want to be going in. By the time four or eight years have gone by, we will only be further behind and it will be that much harder for us to do anything about the effects of climate change. There will continue to be devastating losses, not only to our planet, but to humans, the economy to political conflicts that is only made worse by less and less resources and fewer places people can live.

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How can our Latina readers, whether in Illinois or anywhere else in this country, help the people of Waukegan?

I would say that when it comes to making change, we have to be able to think locally as well. We shouldn’t watch the story and think, oh, how sad for Waukegan. We should watch and think, how sad for all of us. What Waukegan is going through, your own town, or another town, will go through, too. Whether it’s fracking, water levels rising, droughts or sporadic hurricanes, we all are facing the reality of climate change in our own ways. Get involved on a local level, educate yourself and others that these things are happening under our noses, in our own backyards, and organize people. Hold local elected officials accountable. Focusing on your own backyard is the best way to honor the struggle happening in Waukegan, in Flint, in Standing Rock.

Catch Ferrera in the season finale of Years of Living Dangerously on Wednesday night at 10/9 ET on National Geographic.