People of color and low-income communities are bearing the brunt of carbon-centric fuel production and changing global climate: why the energy transition is a civil rights concern.

Written by Cailin Mackenzie, GLOBE Intern
Photography by Ingrid Taylar / Flickr Creative Commons

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers uses a formula to determine allocation of their levee-reinforcement budget. This formula heavily weights potential economic impact of levee failure. In 2011, the Corps reported that their Levee Safety Program contributed to more than $120 billion in prevented damage. Sounds good, right?

In fact, this formula increases the already inequitable impact of climate change on low-income and minority communities, says Jacqueline Patterson, Director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program. The failure of levees protecting areas of lower economic infrastructure caused in part the disproportionate impact of Hurricane Katrina on people of color.

Climate justice is a critical consideration to ensure that policy and mitigation strategically target climate change’s disparate consequences.

Patterson was the keynote speaker at Resilience at the Crossroads of Race and Climate Justice, an event hosted by United Indians at the Daybreak Star Center. She gave an insightful overview of the incredibly complex, multifaceted impacts to marginalized communities, from coal ash slides to “fraccidents.” The event was an invaluable lesson in the depth and breadth of climate justice issues and the collaborative partnerships that transcend race and class to address climate change in a socially equitable way.

Environmental justice issues are not limited to climate change and are old news to people of color and low-income communities. After trichloroethylene was discovered in groundwater in Dickson County, Tennessee, white families were warned of the dangerous well water and connected to municipal water, while black families were left to drink contaminated water for years. The black community in Dickson is still suffering widespread cancers and birth defects.

The Nature Conservancy is determined to hear different perspectives, learn from past discrimination, and implement equitable climate policy. Patterson illustrated how climate justice affects all of the national and global areas where the Conservancy works:

Oceans: Indigenous and low-income communities and communities of color are more likely to live in coastal areas that are vulnerable to rising ocean levels. For example, in 2008 the president of the Maldives hosted an underwater cabinet meeting to illustrate the country’s future with projected sea level rise. Climbing global temperatures are also affecting the fish populations that subsistent fishing communities rely on for survival.

Land: Nearly 26% of African Americans experience food insecurity while the national average is 14.6%. As climate change increasingly impacts agricultural yields and crop diversity, access to nutritious meals may become even more limited for many people of color.

Water: is becoming increasingly scarce, and prices for clean water are only projected to likewise increase. Detroit has shut off water to delinquent bill households, putting low-income families and families of color at risk  for disease and dehydration. Low-income families are also often more likely to live in floodplains with little financial resilience to relocate or rebuild.

Cities: Inner cities, about ten degrees warmer than non-urban areas, have higher African American populations. Heat-related deaths currently occur at a 150-200% greater rate among African Americans than non-Hispanic whites, and climate change is projected to increase heat-related deaths by at least 90%.

Climate Change: In 2000 the World Health Organization estimated conservatively that climate change was causing 150,000 deaths annually, equivalent to a weekly 9/11 attack. The death toll has only mounted as severe weather events become more frequent, only exacerbating inequality: between 1996 and 2005, disasters caused 20 times greater loss to developing countries compared to developed ones.

In Washington, The Nature Conservancy is committed to ensuring the climate change response we advocate will actively reverse disproportionate impact.

“Reducing our carbon emissions can and must be accomplished in a way that reduces inequity and improves quality of life for low income communities,” says Mo McBroom, Director of Government Relations for the Washington chapter. “Greening our inner cities and securing access for all to clean water and natural places is a core tenet of our climate advocacy.”

The Conservancy is dedicated to actively listening to our communities and incorporating diverse viewpoints to equitably facilitate the transition to renewable energy sources and fossil fuel emission reduction.