How Climate Change Affects People of Color

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.


We need to boost investment in clean energy. Wind, solar and energy-efficiency upgrades enable us to power our homes and businesses without contributing to climate change or poisoning our air and water. And these industries create good, healthy American jobs that can't be shipped overseas. A single 250-megawatt wind farm puts 1,000 people to work.

If we get serious about energy independence, we can transition more Americans into jobs they're proud of. We can help more local green businesses get off the ground. And we can save millions on health care costs while protecting Americans from asthma, heart attacks and other preventable illnesses caused by outdated, polluting sources of energy, like coal.


Finally, we have to hold polluters accountable. For too long, coal and oil companies have gotten away with passing along their costs to the rest of us, in the form of health problems and disasters caused by pollution. And communities of color shoulder the heaviest burden.

We need stronger safeguards that protect our air and water from mercury, soot and other toxins. We can generate much-needed revenue for America just by asking fossil fuel industries to pay their fair share. A tax on carbon pollution could generate billions of dollars while helping prevent health problems like asthma, heart disease and birth defects.


A key piece of this, and one that is too often overlooked, is the need to make sure that fossil fuel workers are among the winners as we transition into a clean-energy economy. As we take the necessary steps to fight climate change — like enacting a carbon tax and cracking down on pollution — we have to be vigilant about making sure that workers in the coal and oil industries aren't left to pay the price.

Climate change is real, and so is the need for jobs — especially in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. And despite the attacks on the green economy from big polluters and their allies, green jobs are still one of the best ways to create pathways out of poverty and into the middle class. That's because, if you work in a green job, you'll earn roughly 13 percent more than the median wage and you'll need less education. This means that if your family couldn't afford to send you to college, you can still find work that pays well enough for you to create a better future for your own kids.


Today one of the best ways we can advance the gains of the civil rights movement is by creating real economic opportunity and dignified work for folks who have historically been left out. And the clean-energy economy offers the most promise to do just that.

It's time to get real about tackling climate change. And as we do, we need to work harder than ever to make sure the jobs and opportunities that are created open doors for the folks who are on the front lines: low-income Americans and people of color.  


Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins is the chief executive officer at Green for All, a national organization dedicated to improving the lives of all Americans through a clean-energy economy. Follow Green for All on Twitter.

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.


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