CBC Week: Black People Are Hurt by Climate Change, but It’s Not on the Agenda

Your Take: With few sessions addressing the environment and none on climate change, the Congressional Black Caucus’ Annual Legislative Conference seems to be ignoring an issue that affects millions.

CBC Chairman G.K. Butterfield attends the 45th Annual Legislative Press Conference at Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 16, 2015.
CBC Chairman G.K. Butterfield attends the 45th Annual Legislative Press Conference at Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 16, 2015. Earl Gibson III/Getty Images

It’s no secret: The climate is changing, and black communities are on the front lines. From the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans to the Rockaways in New York City and westward to San Francisco’s East Bay, African Americans are bearing the brunt of climate impacts.

Black people contribute much less to the problem (pdf) than others—in fact, our households emit 20 percent less greenhouse gases than whites’. Still, we are among the most severely affected in the United States. Low-income African Americans are more vulnerable to catastrophic losses (pdf) in a natural disaster, and nearly twice as likely as white people to die in heat waves (pdf).

Yet, as the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference gets underway, there is not one mention of the phrase “climate change” on the agenda. Although there is limited focus on “environmental justice” in a few small panel discussions, climate change—the giant of all environmental issues—is glaringly absent from the agenda. Nor does it appear that the conference features a large contingent of black leaders from a growing climate-justice movement.

One must ask: What’s that all about? How does the largest gathering of influential black politicos and leaders in the country not insert itself into the largest global-policy conversation taking place today?

The absence of climate change reveals a glaring disconnect with the theme of this year’s legislative conference, “Defining the Moment, Building the Movement.” Climate change is, arguably, the defining issue for human civilization, particularly communities of color. As a result, the CBCF fails to fully define the moment and leverage the power of its annual convening to build the movement we need on climate change.

Certainly, the CBC Foundation’s annual conference is one of the nation’s largest, most important national meetings of black influencers and power-brokers. Every fall, some of our best and brightest—the political, economic and social “Talented Tenth”—gather in Washington, D.C., to collectively consider the state of black America. The breadth of stakeholders, assets and capacities represented there—coupled with several dozen black members of Congress as the conference’s political backbone—can potentially shape and move any agenda. Appropriately, the conference addresses the most important issues of our time: criminal-justice reform, Black Lives Matter, voting rights, public health.

Climate change, however, has been left out.

Climate change is not just a “white people’s” conversation. African Americans (along with the entire black Diaspora) have much to gain from the essential fight to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The dirtiest carbon-spewing power plants are disproportionately located in our communities—which is one reason African-American children are 10 times more likely to die from asthma than their white counterparts. The commonsense replacement of fossil fuels with clean, renewable sources of energy could have far-reaching health and economic benefits for African Americans.

Perhaps that’s why two-thirds of African Americans polled believe that climate change is a serious problem and want their elected officials to take action. Living with the impact of climate change in their communities, they can see that something is really wrong.

But you wouldn’t know that from attending the CBCF’s conference this year. With few exceptions, when environment and energy issues do show up on the agenda, they focus on building the science, technology, engineering and math skills of black people to work in the fossil fuel industry, as opposed to building a movement to achieve economic, social and environmental change.  

Why? Well, it’s no secret that coal, oil and gas interests have launched an elaborate campaign to woo black Americans. Most recently, the infamous conservative Koch brothers launched a public relations assault called Fueling US Forward, which tells black people how badly they need fossil fuels.

Records show that the CBC enjoys warm relations with fossil fuel interests: In 2012, for example, the CBC Institute and the CBC Policy and Leadership Institute received a total of $160,000 from the American Petroleum Institute. And the CBC Political Education and Leadership Institute’s 21st Century Council includes several representatives from the fossil fuel industry, including API, Exxon Mobil and BP. And the CBC is not alone: The National Black Chamber of Commerce is so close to fossil fuel interests, its CEO considers them family. A cursory glance at the Center for Responsive Politics’ database shows CBC members receiving substantial campaign contributions from API’s political action committee, too.

These cozy financial arrangements set up an uncomfortable quid pro quo with African-American political leaders and prevent us from addressing one of the most important issues of our time. In 2009, for example, lobbyists and executives from these industries helped draft a report in the caucus’s name stipulating that cost factors be considered in climate-mitigation policies—an echo of industry talking points. 

We should be using the CBCF legislative conference, with its assemblage of our Talented Tenth, to address the impact of climate change on communities of color and build a policy platform for climate resilience. Considerable investments are being made in resilience planning and development. Why isn’t the CBCF conference working to ensure that African Americans are at the planning tables—and benefiting from these investments?

The conference takes place one week before the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. That opening represents the fruition of a hundred-year struggle to honor the contributions and history of African Americans. It also displays the unparalleled and unheralded resilience in our community. This event should remind us of our unfinished history of struggle and survival. Let’s hope it also serves as a call to action on a new threat to our community’s survival: climate change.

The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.

Denise G. Fairchild is the inaugural president of the Emerald Cities Collaborative, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to building a sustainable, just and resilient U.S. economy. She produced this piece as part of the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, with support from the Kresge Foundation and the JPB Foundation.

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