Racial Equity, Poverty and the Promise of Clean Power

A new federal initiative could go a long way toward improving the health of poor and segregated communities, but they need to have a voice in it.
October 26, 2015
African-American children are twice as likely to be hospitalized with an asthma attack and four times as likely to die from the disease as white children. (Rick Gershon/Dallas Morning News/TNS)
By Cornell William Brooks  |  Contributor
President and CEO of the NAACP
By Denise Fairchild  |  Contributor
President and CEO of Emerald Cities Collaborative
By Mark Magaña  |  Contributor
President and CEO of GreenLatinos
By Miya Yoshitani  |  Contributor
Executive director of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network

Very influential people are starting to connect the dots among climate change, racial equity and poverty. The United Nations' new sustainable-development goals explicitly link these issues, and in his historic address to Congress last month Pope Francis called for an "integrated approach" to the climate, requiring inclusive dialogue and a focus on fighting poverty. More concretely, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently unveiled the Clean Power Plan, a regulation that acknowledges the injustice of climate change.

Communities of color and low-income communities have been plagued with high rates of cancer, asthma and other pollution-related illnesses well above the national average. The Clean Power Plan (CPP) finally places limits on the deadly emissions of coal-fired power plants. This action can literally bring a breath of fresh air to these communities -- but only if those most directly impacted by climate change have a voice in how the plan takes shape at the state level.

With 68 percent of African-Americans and 40 percent of Latinos living within 30 miles of a pollution-spewing, coal-fired power plant and over 50 percent of Asian-Americans living in counties with unhealthy air quality, the negative health consequences of poverty and segregated neighborhoods are well documented. The EPA says that in 2010:

• African-American children were twice as likely to be hospitalized with an asthma attack and four times as likely to die from the disease as white children.

• Hispanics were 60 percent more likely than non-Hispanic whites to visit the hospital for asthma.

• The asthma rate among children living in poverty was 12.2 percent, compared to 8.2 percent for children living above the poverty line.

By cutting the pollutants in soot and smog that contribute to illnesses by 25 percent, the CPP can help turn around such health disparities, and it also has the potential to provide an economic lift to front-line communities. States can meet their carbon-reduction goals (ultimately leading to a 30 percent cut nationwide) with increased deployment of energy efficiency and renewable energy, and the growing clean-energy economy can reduce energy bills for U.S. consumers, businesses and governments while delivering jobs and new business opportunities to low-income communities of color. A recent report from the University of Maryland and Industrial Economics assessing the CPP's employment potential estimates a net increase of 74,000 jobs in 2020 and creation of 196,000 more between 2025 and 2040.

We're excited that the CPP acknowledges climate change as an environmental-justice issue: The plan states that "low-income communities and communities of color already overburdened with pollution are likely to be disproportionately affected by, and less resilient to, the impacts of climate change." The plan requires states to tell EPA how they are engaging "meaningfully" with low-income communities during the CPP planning process and how their plans will address those communities' needs for reduced carbon emissions.

The CPP also outlines a Clean Energy Incentive Program, or CEIP, under which EPA will award extra credits toward compliance for "early" renewable energy and low-income energy-efficiency initiatives taken in 2020 and 2021. In addition, the CEIP encourages utilities to continue energy-efficiency and renewable-energy incentive programs, including measures such as demand-side energy efficiency, that will lower utility bills in low-income communities. The EPA says steps like these will spread the CPP's benefits "broadly across society," including avoiding as many as 6,600 premature deaths and 150,000 child asthma attacks.

But as significant and far-reaching as the Clean Power Plan can be for front-line communities, the plan's promise is not certain. Without input from residents and community organizations in low-income communities and communities of color, states could easily implement the CPP in a way that leaves these communities behind in "energy ghettos" without access to clean, affordable energy.

To avoid this, federal, state and local decisionmakers -- including utilities -- must consult front-line communities as they craft state CPP implementation plans, both to comply with EPA's mandates and to garner the local input and expertise needed to bring the CPP's equity components to life.

In the wake of the pope's inspiring remarks here in the United States -- and his particular focus on our throwaway culture with its negative economic and environmental impacts -- we urge public and private decision-makers to set up an inclusive CPP process. We stand ready, along with other national and local community organizations, to work collaboratively on state carbon-reduction plans that improve the health, economy and overall well-being of all of our communities.