Your Take: Climate Change Is a Civil Rights Issue

African Americans are disproportionately affected by global warming and pollution.

Jacqui Patterson
Jacqui Patterson

As we honor the 40th anniversary of Earth Day and pay homage to the gifts of air, water, land, flora, fauna and the rich diversity of the animal kingdom, we must acknowledge that not all of the earth’s inhabitants have equal access to basic essential elements of life and well-being. Continued and progressive deprivation is a looming threat, in the form of climate change, to communities of color in the United States and countries predominated by people of color worldwide.

Climate change is a statistical change in the distribution of weather over time. One of these changes is global warming, which is the increase in the temperature of the earth’s near-surface air and oceans. Climate change is driven primarily by emissions of carbon dioxide (through energy production via the burning of fossil fuels) and exacerbated by deforestation because forests play a key role in absorbing carbon dioxide.

Here is where the justice issues and civil rights violations begin to come into play. What makes the disproportionate impact of climate change on African Americans particularly unjust is that African Americans are least responsible for climate change because we produce relatively low emissions. African Americans on average emit 6,171 kilograms of carbon dioxide per person, a little over 20 percent less than white Americans and nearly 18 percent less than all Americans. Yet we are one of the most severely impacted groups.

At the same time, African Americans disproportionately ingest the polluting emissions that damage the earth in the short and long run, and directly contaminate our bodies, resulting in negative health effects such as asthma, lung cancer and other respiratory illnesses. In fact, studies show that race is the No. 1 indicator of placement of toxic facilities. African Americans are far more likely to live adjacent to a landfill, incinerator or coal-fired power plant than white Americans.

Recognizing these linkages, the NAACP has partnered with the Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative, the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization and climate justice activist Adrian Wilson to produce “Clearing the Air,” a report that ranks American coal-fired power plants by proximity to people of color and low-income communities. As part of this effort, I have just wrapped up a 10-day Clearing the Air Road Tour, where I visited NAACP branches in the regions surrounding the 10 most-polluting power plants.

In communities like Jersey City, N.J., Cleveland, Ohio, and Hammond, Ind., people face astronomical rates of respiratory illnesses and multiple incidents of lung cancer among non-smokers. We heard stories of people whose property values have plummeted and who are now living in blight as the neighborhoods surrounding the plants have taken a downturn. One Chicago interviewee said, “I guess they think we won’t fight, so they think it’s fine to dump anything on us while they go home to Naperville [a wealthy suburb of Chicago].”

Pollution-related illness is one way we are negatively affected by the same forces that drive climate change. Climate change itself results in: rising sea levels, severe weather events, alterations in agricultural yields, melting glaciers/ice caps and species extinction. More often than not, communities of color bear the brunt of the impact:

— A study of the 15 largest U.S. cities found that climate change would increase heat-related deaths by at least 90 percent. African Americans are more likely to live in inner cities, which tend to be about 10 degrees warmer than non-urban areas. Heat-related deaths among African Americans occur at a 150-200 percent greater rate than for non-Hispanic whites.