Recent fatal encounters between African Americans and police officers have focused new attention on the recurring issue of institutional racism affecting Black communities. Among the inequalities that have been brought into question, “environmental injustice” has been at the forefront.
It has compelled environmental advocacy groups to express solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement; however, their goal of pushing 100 percent renewable energy will likely harm low-income communities of color.
Environmental injustice refers to the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards and pollution on lower-income communities, which are often predominantly communities of color. Because these communities are frequently located near industrial zones, places that may include power plants and industrial waste disposal sites, they often suffer from reduced air and water quality. The 2014 Flint, Michigan, water crisis is an example of the sort of negative impacts that can come from residential areas existing in close proximity to industrial zones. Fortunately, due in large part to pollution control techniques that have been implemented over the past 30 years, America has become a world leader in clean air and water, and cases like Flint are becoming increasingly rare. Still, there is always room for improvement through better management practices.
Because controversial global issues like climate change garner so much attention and resources, local issues of urban exposure to pollution are often eclipsed. Organizations leading the modern environmentalist movement in the United States, such as the Sierra Club Foundation, Center for Biological Diversity, and Nature Conservancy, tend to focus more attention on advocating for renewable energy alternatives. They warn that without nationwide divestment from fossil fuels to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and slow climate change, there were will be wide-scale, disproportionately negative impacts on low-income, largely minority communities.
With today’s level of industrialization, switching to an economy that utilizes only renewable energy would penalize the very groups that can least afford it. The cost of energy could become cripplingly high for many low-income Americans. As it is, lower-income households pay 4.9 percent more of their income on utilities than higher-income households. A 100 percent renewable electric grid would only make matters worse. Monthly electric bills would not only reflect the cost of the renewable power, but also the backup fossil-fuel run generators needed to compensate for power outages resulting from variable weather conditions.
For many lower-income Americans struggling to make ends meet, the cost of both systems — renewable and fossil fuel backup — may mean choosing between electricity and other necessities like food and medications. Sadly, more than 7 million families already face that choice almost every month. For some households, access to energy may become altogether unattainable.
At this juncture, forcing a situation in which “communities of color are powered by community solar instead of fossil fuels” would only exacerbate the plight of those whose standard of living heavily depends on affordable, reliable energy. It begs the question: why set a goal that could potentially harm the communities that suffer most?
A possibility is that there is actually a broad disconnect between the leadership of the environmental groups promoting an exclusively renewable energy grid, and the needs of the African American communities that would be affected by these policies. Among the leading environmental advocacy groups including the Nature Conservancy, the Sierra Club Foundation, Rocky Mountain Institute, Natural Resource Defense Council, Center for Biological Diversity, and the Environmental Defense Fund, there is very little African American representation in crucial leadership positions. Despite their overtures to racial equality, most environmental groups are tone-deaf to the plight of so many Black Americans who would suffer from their policies.
It may be wise for the Black Lives Matter movement to separate itself from the agendas of these green organizations — at least until there are more leading environmental advocates that can truly understand the impact that the modern environmentalist movement will have on African American communities nationwide.
This commentary originally appeared in the Houston Courant on July 14, 2020.