Where’s the Black Political Conversation on Climate Change?

Without clean air to breathe or unflooded land to live on, eventually not much else will matter. For that reason alone, it’s time for black folks to get invested in the climate debate.

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Host Neil deGrasse Tyson attends the premiere of Fox’s Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles March 4, 2014.

Jason Kempin/Getty Images

President Barack Obama might be the only black person on the planet who cares about climate change.

Well, not really, but close—the ill-fated climate-change debate is as white as late-night talk shows. It’s that way for a number of reasons: from who funds either side of the heated climate conversation to allegations that environmentalists routinely dis black perspectives on the topic. Most egregious is a pervasive lack of urgent black political action on the subject.

On Monday the administration of the first black president, who is also the first president to seriously tackle climate change, announced ambitious Environmental Protection Agency rules that cut carbon emissions by 30 percent through 2030. That’s huge.

Still, only 24 percent of the general population feels the same. Even within the context of climate change’s devastating and disproportionate impact on communities of color, black politicos won’t follow the president’s lead on the issue. The Congressional Black Caucus didn’t say if it would, at the very least, take a look at the rules—nor does it list climate change as an issue of focus (leaving it to the multicultural Congressional Progressive Caucus). There are no press releases popping about the White House National Climate Assessment or that recent EPA drop from big civil rights organizations like the National Urban League or the NAACP—even though the NAACP sports a convenient Climate Justice initiative.

Black lawmakers—state, local and federal—aren’t into climate change, even if their cities are sinking in it. A Mayor Michael Nutter in Philly or a Mayor Vincent Gray in Washington, D.C., might yell “green spaces” and “bike lanes,” but that’s reverse dog-whistle politics in the hunt for white votes. Mayor Kasim Reed missed a golden opportunity to talk about Atlanta’s spectacular snow disaster back in January as a climate-change issue, choosing instead to whine about it in a series of press conferences.

In a recent Economist-YouGov poll (pdf), however, blacks felt more personally affected by headlining climate-change events than whites and Latinos did: Twenty percent of African Americans, compared with 12 percent of whites and 10 percent of Latinos, were impacted by Superstorm Sandy; and 17 percent of blacks were affected by Hurricane Katrina, versus 8 percent of whites and Latinos. More black folks also felt impacted by tornadoes than did whites and Latinos. 

Black perceptions of climate-change danger shouldn’t stun the imagination. Climatic weather events frequently blast populations of color. Cities in Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York and North Carolina are drowning under rising sea levels. Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, Mo., and elsewhere are the hardest hit by heat waves.

Reducing carbon pollution is just as much a people-of-color imperative as it is for everyone else. A study from the Environmental Justice and Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform, entitled “Who’s in Danger? Race, Poverty, and Chemical Disasters” (pdf), found “an association between lower average housing values, incomes, and education levels and greater black, Latino, and low-income populations living within chemical disaster ‘vulnerability zones’ ... across the U.S.”

Your favorite urban radio host won’t push a full string of segments on it. Maybe reverend finds a Sunday Bible verse on it ... maybe not. You’d have better chances of finding air underwater than waiting on the few black cable networks to cover it. Of the countless high-profile rants and roundtables pushing black thought leaders and celebrity sidekicks, you’d be as lucky to hit the lottery as to hear a loaded talk on the environment. 

Neil deGrasse Tyson on Cosmos and a Morgan Freeman Science Channel voiceover are as close as we get to prominent black voices—other than the president’s—on the state of the planet. Clearly, climate change is not an issue du jour tantalizing the African-American zeitgeist.

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