How Climate Change Affects People of Color

Your Take: Blacks face health consequences as a result of pollution. We need to demand change now.

Demonstrators march at the 'Forward on Climate' rally. (David McNew/Getty Images)
Demonstrators march at the 'Forward on Climate' rally. (David McNew/Getty Images)

(Special to The Root) — Chances are, if you are a person of color, climate change isn’t at the top of your list of concerns. President Barack Obama’s remarks on the issue in his State of the Union address and inaugural speech weren’t what made you cheer. Finding a job, keeping the lights and heat on, and guarding the health and safety of your kids are your priorities — and what you want your political leaders to prioritize, too.

But climate change should be at or near the top of our political agenda, and here’s why. Hurricane Katrina showed us that neighborhoods with the fewest resources have a harder time escaping, surviving and recovering from natural disasters. And last year’s Superstorm Sandy, droughts and record-breaking heat — which occurred with increased frequency and ferocity — taught us that these natural disasters aren’t so natural after all. They are the result of climate change caused by pollution that our communities know about all too well.

Communities of color have been suffering the health effects of climate-altering pollution for far too long. Sixty-eight percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal plant — one of the biggest sources of carbon pollution in America. That might help explain why African-American kids have a much higher rate of asthma: 1 in 6, compared with 1 in 10 nationwide.

African Americans living in Los Angeles are more than twice as likely to die during a heat wave as other residents of the city. That’s because cities develop “heat islands,” which are created by an abundance of concrete and asphalt. People of color more densely populate urban areas that are prone to the heat-island effect. And folks living in these areas also tend to have limited access to cars and air conditioning.

Knowing what we know about the effects of climate change on our communities, we must fight it with all we’ve got. It’s much more than an environmental issue; it’s also a civil and human rights issue.

As daunting as climate change is, it’s not unsolvable. We can still tackle it. And the solution — the clean-energy innovation that President Barack Obama has talked about — offers hope for addressing many of our other concerns, from poverty and joblessness to urban blight. The tools we use to combat climate change are the same tools we can use to change the game for low-income Americans and people of color.

Just take a look at Mark Davis, who started the first African-American-owned solar-manufacturing company in the country and is now putting people to work in his neighborhood of Anacostia in Washington, D.C. — all while fighting pollution. We can make major financial gains, especially in underserved communities, by embracing climate solutions. But turning the promise of the clean-energy economy into an economic engine requires actions from our leaders that we must demand.

To begin with, we need to equip vulnerable communities to respond to extreme weather and disasters. Even if we are 100 percent effective at stopping carbon pollution, we are still going to feel the damage that’s been done. We need our state and local leaders to work with residents to create climate-resilience plans. We need Congress to make the investments necessary to upgrade and repair our crumbling infrastructure — from building seawalls that protect shoreline communities to fixing our storm-water systems. Doing so will create family-sustaining, local jobs. Improving our storm-water infrastructure alone would put 2 million Americans to work. We need to make sure that people of color are a part of the business community and workforce building these new systems.

We also need to put the brakes on dirty-energy projects that accelerate climate change and put communities at further risk — starting with the Keystone XL pipeline. The pipeline would do more than accelerate global warming. It would pose a direct threat to the health and safety of indigenous groups and other people of color, including those living in Port Arthur, Texas — a predominantly black-and-Latino community where its toxic tar-sands oil would be processed.