“You adults are ruining the Earth,” Senator Sydney Batch’s then eight-year-old said to her one day after school.
“You guys are destroying it, and I don’t understand why you can’t do better,” the senator said, portraying her child.
Her then fifth-grader chimed in: “Mom, you know that there’s a plastic island floating in the ocean. It’s as big as Texas because we have so much pollution on this planet and it's huge and it's killing fish and it’s killing turtles and all of the sea life.”
Senator Batch laughed because they were right. “If my now nine and eleven-year-old son can see the challenges with regards to climate change and the importance of affecting positive change, then I have hope,” she said. “They give me hope.”
When Senator Batch of Wake County, North Carolina was first asked to run for office, she “like many women, had to be asked seven times,” she said. From having young kids to owning a small business to practicing family and child welfare law with her husband, running for the district senator did not seem feasible. “But I looked at the challenges, and frankly, the laws that were being passed in North Carolina,” she said, recalling her initial reasons for running. “and they were not benefiting my community, especially working families.”
“Legislation should look like the people it serves,” she said. North Carolina is still lacking in terms of balanced gender and racial representation. On top of wanting to represent a population less constituted, Sydney Batch had a skillset in social work and child welfare, a type of advocacy that could positively advance legislation. “Instead of trying to help one family at a time in the courtroom,” she said, “I thought I could go into the legislature and finally change the laws for many families.”
Among a myriad of actions from affordable healthcare, to child advocacy, to fair pay laws, Senator Batch wanted to see a change in the way North Carolina handles climate and environmental justice from her initial election in 2018.
What magnified her initial interest in climate action was the increased vulnerability she saw her state face to extreme weather events. On top of the flooding, droughts, and extreme heat waves, Senator Batch pointed out the slow-moving hurricanes that have flooded significant portions of North Carolina, putting communities at risk.
Since 2016, North Carolina has seen four major hurricanes. That year, when Hurricane Matthew hit, almost 50 million gallons of untreated water went into nearby creeks and streams, the Senator said. From untreated water to busted pipes, safe drinking water became increasingly unreliable.
During the 2019- 2020 legislative session, Batch sponsored and cosponsored 48 bills, one of which ensured clean drinking water for all North Carolinians. Clean water and clean air is a basic necessity that often gets polluted in disadvantaged communities, and is only exacerbated when natural disasters — heightened by climate change — as hurricanes hit. Thus, the 2020 Safe Drinking Water Act required the Commission for Public Health to establish maximum contaminant levels for chemicals, probable carcinogens, and toxins in drinking water.
“Holistically looking at what needs to happen in North Carolina is what really drew me to the environmental justice space,” she said.
Senator Batch has been instrumental in getting some of those holistic measures through the legislature in her historically conservative state. House Bill 951, a bill that has set aggressive standards with regard to clean energy and goals to significantly reduce the state's carbon emissions by 2030 and like much of the world, completely reach carbon neutrality by 2050.
“I think in North Carolina in particular, we’ve done a really good job, especially in the south, for setting some pretty aggressive standards compared to our southern neighbors,” the senator said. However, she notes that the state must actually implement its goals and pass all the appropriate legislation to reach carbon neutrality. While challenges such as North Carolina’s divided chamber and government exist, the goals the Old North State has set in place, so far, give Batch hope.
From Governor Ray Cooper’s climate and equity Executive Order 246 which instructs government agencies to implement proposed climate policies, to the House bill that passed, she is hopeful about where the state’s priorities lie.
The House bill, she says, addresses communities of color, and those of marginalized and Indigenous people, who are disproportionately affected by pollution and climate change. It also plans to ensure that by 2030, the state has over 1.25 million plug-in electric vehicles on North Carolinian roads, and to eliminate most fossil fuel vehicles by 2050.
Yet, when leadership changes, so may priorities. So, Batch stresses the importance of passing legislation as opposed to relying on executive orders to make sure the state pushes its climate goals forward.
There has been pushback from her Republican colleagues, noting how challenging the energy transition will be, but Senator Batch argues that the country has overcome “hard things” in the past. Thus, despite the obstacles, when something is “the right thing to do” and the “economically sound thing to do,” you have to implement it, she said.
“There are really smart people, much smarter than anyone that’s in the General Assembly including me, that are in this space who can give us really good ideas,” she said. “We just have to have the will of the people and of the people in the office to pass that type of legislation.”
In passing that type of legislation, she often runs into the hurdle of being a Democratic member whose seat is currently being challenged in a competitive district.
The result of this is that legislation submitted with her name on it will not get passed. However, the senator has learned that there are two different types of politicians, whom she calls “peacocks” and “peahens” respectively, one who is showy and anxious to be in the spotlight, and the other who only cares about getting the work done with or without their name on it.
“So a lot of the legislation that I’ve worked on, I’ve used a different messenger, or I’ve given it to my Republican colleagues to move forward,” she said. “I think in the clean energy space we have less advocates across the aisle in North Carolina.”
But in order for the state to truly reach its environmental justice goals, that cross-aisle collaboration needs to happen.
When Senator Batch first came into the legislature, she was coming from the background of being a family law attorney, social worker, and child welfare advocate. She spent a great deal of time advocating for reforms in child welfare and access to affordable healthcare. But what keeps coming up time and time again, she said, is that one can’t simply fix education or access to healthcare without looking at all of the other challenges presented in the environmental justice space.
This dichotomy is exemplified in North Carolina’s hog farms.
In the U.S., pork production is centralized in the midwest and notably, eastern North Carolina. However, a disproportionate amount of Black North Carolinians and other people of color live near these hog farms in close proximity which presents health issues due to polluted air and water.
“You can’t just look at everything in a siloed manner, so it's important for us to find ways that we are ensuring environmental justice is considered and the people that it affects,” she said. “For instance, the pipelines that go through Black and brown communities, the hog farms that happen to be in Black and brown communities, and the factories, dumps, and textiles that happen to be in Black and brown communities… we have to figure out a way that individuals living within those communities can still have a high quality of life.”
This high quality of life doesn't include noise pollution and air pollution and water pollution, she said, and “the list goes on.” Senator Batch doesn’t represent eastern North Carolina, but “it's absolutely incumbent upon every legislator to focus on how our policies affect individuals and communities that don’t necessarily have a voice.”
The story of the hog farm communities is a story that Senator Batch thinks deserves more attention.
“There are significant environmental justice issues with regards to some of these really large farms,” she said, mentioning CAFOs, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. Batch pointed to a 2018 Duke study published in the North Carolina Medical Journal. The study found that living near hog farms leads to a plethora of health issues and fatalities, including high general and infant mortality rates and lower birth rates. They also found that proximity leads to significant deaths due to anemia, kidney disease, tuberculosis, and septicemia. Residents visited the ER and were hospitalized at higher rates than those living farther from the CAFOs.
“Even if people have access to healthcare, if you’re living in an environment that’s toxic, you’re just going to go to the doctor more often, but you’re not going to actually be healthy,” the Senator said.Senator Batch works for affordable healthcare and quality education, “but none of those are going to matter if we don't have clean air to breathe and water to drink, if we have lead in our pipes,” she says, centering environmental justice as a top priority.
While the story of North Carolina’s hog farms has gotten some attention, it deserves more, the senator said. The lobbyists for these companies have power and money to use against communities of color without access to legislators. “I’m not in eastern North Carolina, but I’m a state senator in a state where I care about every North Carolinian, not just the ones who live in my district,” she said. “We have to figure out a way where we are putting a focus on those, through no fault of their own, who happen to live in places that are absolutely negatively affecting their quality of life and taking years off of their life.”
Senator Batch stresses that there has to be a compromise. Even if it’s an expensive one, “we’ve overcome challenges before.”