Changing the Economics of Climate Injustice

By Imara Jones Jun 02, 2014

President Obama takes today what is arguably the boldest step on climate justice advanced by any occupant of the White House in the last half century.

Initiating a broader use of executive authority announced earlier this year, the president proposes new rules that require the country’s dirtiest fossil fuel-reliant power plants–those which burn coal–to cut their carbon-dioxide emissions by 30 percent. Carbon dioxide is the leading driver of the globe’s warming temperature and the unstable environmental conditions this brings. The mechanism for this carbon reduction, known as "cap-and-trade," promises to remake the economics of domestic energy production by essentially making polluters pay for the harm that they cause in the short-term, and by incentivizing them to do less harm over time. Cap-and-trade will diminish the amount of carbon that can be emitted into the atmosphere each year, while at the same expanding the market for and price competitiveness of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.

Obama’s action comes five years later than many of his supporters had hoped, but it arrives at a crucial time for those hardest hit by climate change. As the planet warms, the negative consequences that flow from it are not equally borne by everybody. As the government’s latest National Climate Assessment forecasts, the globe’s warming atmosphere means particularly devastating consequences for urban areas across the country and for regions, especially the Southeast and West, where more than eight out of 10 people of color in America live. It’s why "CNN Crossfire" co-host and leading environmentalist Van Jones said earlier this year that it would be "delusional" not to tackle the issue.

Last year was one of the most frigid in recent memory for the United States, but it was also one of the hottest on record for the planet overall. These two extremes may seem contradictory, but they go hand in hand. Earth’s overall warming, as former Vice President Al Gore points out in the Oscar-winning film "An Inconvenient Truth," produces dramatic climate variability from country to country and fuels dramatic weather events. Our harsh winter is consistent with what can be expected from a climate in flux.

As a result of the mind-numbing cold in 2013, the poor were hit with energy costs which were as as much as 20 percent higher than normal, forcing those on fixed with incomes to grapple with unimaginable trade offs between heat and something else crucial. The extreme drought in the West is expected to push food costs up at the highest rate in three years, at a time when food stamp benefits have been cut and local food pantries are overextended.

For the poor and people of color impacted by the more extreme aspects of climate change, the effects are not only excruciating but long lasting. Take Superstorm Sandy, the mostly working poor areas of New York and New Jersey that were slammed hardest by Sandy continue to languish in wait of help. As The Huffington Post’s Amy Liberman points out, less than 1 percent of thousands of applications for a special program for those with low-to-moderate incomes whose lives were wrecked by Sandy have been processed. Astoundingly, another 20,000 remain on the waiting list. In ways that range from the shocking to the obscure, the poor and people of color are already grappling with the impact of climate change in their daily lives.

Perhaps that’s why people of color have been such strong backers of federal action on climate change. A report by the Yale Project on Climate Change and George Mason University shows that blacks and Latinos were the "strongest supporters" of policies to address climate change "and were more likely to support these policies even if they incurred greater costs. 
African Americans and Latinos back cap-and-trade policies at rates up to 40 percent higher than whites.

But this is not a surprise. Cap-and-trade has already served as an important instrument in cleaning up the environment in communities of color. As The Economist lays out, an existing cap-and-trade program for a range of other air pollutants–like sulfur dioxide–has already helped slash air pollution for power plants in the U.S. by almost 70 percent, particularly over the past 20 years. Even as the U.S. population has increased by almost 100 million people, the country has managed to get cleaner air through these programs.

Polluting plants are more often than not located in communities of color. As a recent University of Minnesota study makes clear, even though poverty is an important factor in where dirty electricity facilities are found, "race matters more" according to one of the authors, Dr. Julian Marshall. So individuals in black and brown neighborhoods know first-hand just how important measures such as cap-and-trade are–because we live with them each day.