by Ralph B. Everett
With the scientific community now of one mind that global climate change is real and poses a threat to humanity, the debate on this issue is now firmly focused on what to do about it. At this juncture, African Americans and other communities of color have a critical interest, as well as a key role to play, in ensuring that our policymakers make the right decisions in addressing this critical issue.
To be sure, climate change is something that threatens everyone. All of us share the same planet and breathe in the same atmosphere.
But when you look more closely at the types of severe weather events that are expected to increase in frequency and intensity as the climate changes – and if you look at other factors and consequences related to energy policy, pollution and public health – it becomes clear that some communities face more immediate threats than others.
Beyond the well-known images of human suffering in the wake of hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Ike are empirical data showing that the dire consequences of severe weather events tend to fall disproportionately on communities of color and that there are disparities in other areas, as well. For example, one study showed that African Americans in Los Angeles are nearly twice as likely to die from a heat wave as other residents of that city.
Air pollutants associated with climate change are usually found in greater concentrations where low income and minority families – and these are families least likely to have health insurance to help them deal with the health effects of dirty air. Global warming will likely cause major disruptions in the agriculture and tourism industries, both of which employ a disproportionately high number of lowincome Americans and people of color. And it is expected to cause a rise in the costs of basic necessities like food, water and energy, which make up a much higher proportion of household budgets for low-income families.
On the other side of the equation, some of the climate change mitigation strategies that are under consideration would have their own disproportionate impacts on low-income and minority Americans.
All the more reason why communities of color need to be concerned with and involved in the climate change debate.
elements of greater engagement and activism are already in place. A national poll conducted by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that more than 80 percent of African Americans feel climate change is a real problem and wants the government to do something about it.
Today’s challenge is to move more effectively into the policy arena. A lot of decisions with farreaching consequences are going to be made over the next few years, and we need to make sure that the communities at greatest risk from global warming are at the table and fully engaged in the process.
Noting that workers in green jobs earn 10 to 20 percent more than those in comparable non-green jobs, our aims should go beyond protecting all communities from the potentially disastrous effects of climate change, but also toward ensuring that all communities benefit from the economic growth that will result from responsibly transitioning to a green economy.
Addressing climate change is more than an opportunity to stave off a threat to the health of our planet – it also offers a chance to bring our communities together, to narrow the gaps that divide us and to give our children and grandchildren hope for a better life. To get there, let us ensure that all our fellow citizens are part of the process that we, as a people must undertake to heal our planet and mitigate the effects of climate change. America works best – America succeeds and prospers – when everyone participates, when everyone is heard.
Ralph B. Everett is President and CEO of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington think tank that focuses on the concerns of African Americans and other communities of color. He is also co-chair, with Texas State Senator Rodney Ellis, of the Commission to Engage African Americans on Climate Change, a national panel of scientists, lawmakers, academics, and representatives from business, labor and consumer organizations that seeks to involve communities of color in the climate change debate. The Commission will hear from local residents at a Town Hall meeting in Houston on Wednesday, June 17 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Communications Workers of America Local 6222, 1730 Jefferson St.