Civil rights groups join climate talks

Supporters of the bill say severe weather patterns some scientists believe to be the result of climate change have a disparate impact on minority and poor communities. But Frank Stewart, the president and chief operating officer of the American Association of Blacks in Energy, believes the legislation could lead to a transfer of wealth from urban communities with large black populations to rural areas that stand to benefit more from “green” jobs created by a carbon cap.

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Frustrated by a lack of momentum on Capitol Hill for the issue, groups like the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund and other “green” organizations have sought out labor, religious, rural and national security groups in an effort to turn the climate bill into something more. Climate legislation has been lobbied as a way to boost the economy through green jobs and to improve national security by reducing dependence on foreign oil.

Less has been made of climate change as a civil rights issue, although the support of minority communities could prove critical to the bill’s ultimate success, given the political power of groups like the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC).

The NAACP, the Hip Hop Caucus and the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy join the NWF at a press conference on Tuesday as the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee begins the first of three hearings over the next three days on the climate bill introduced by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).

Hilary O. Shelton, the NAACP’s lead lobbyist, said his group’s work on climate change is an evolution of its now decades-old push on environmental justice issues.

“Racial and ethnic and poor communities end up being the dumping ground for toxins and pollutants,” said Shelton, explaining NAACP’s efforts on clean air and other environmental issues.

Hurricane Katrina turned climate into an environmental justice issue for the NAACP, Shelton said.

“We want to make sure our policymakers address the severe weather conditions like Katrina that are caused by major shifts in our climate,” Shelton said.

That’s not only a risk to New Orleans and other coastal cities with large minority populations — areas that are among the “frontline” communities that could be the first and hardest-hit by the effects of climate change, supporters of capping carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases argue.

Heat waves worsen air pollution in urban areas, where more than 40 percent of African-Americans live, compared to 20 percent of white people, according to an NWF report. Blacks are also twice as likely as whites to live in poverty and are therefore less likely to have air conditioning or proper insulation to minimize the effects of excessive heat, the report found.

In July, the NAACP adopted a resolution noting the particularly severe impact global warming could have on countries in Africa. A climate bill would likely curb the use of coal as an energy source, which would have residual clean air benefits as well.

The resolution also notes that 70 percent of African-Americans live in counties in violation of federal air pollution standards, and that blacks are nearly three times as likely to be hospitalized or killed by asthma.

The statement was in part an outgrowth of the effort at NWF to attract new groups to the cause. The environmental organization has also sought to organize sportsmen and -women worried about declining wildlife habitat due to climate change. In October 2008, NWF hired Marc Littlejohn, a former aide to the CBC, to do outreach to groups that represent minority communities. The press event Tuesday starts a day of door-knocking for a fly-in where NWF is bringing together some of its coalition of supporters.

But if climate change is a risk to African-American communities, the climate bill may pose its own concerns, according to Stewart.

He worries some of the promised benefits of the clean-energy economy will bypass black communities. Wind resources are concentrated in the Upper Midwestern states like North and South Dakota, Montana and Iowa, which have very small minority populations.

States with a lot of sun, like Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and California, have larger black populations, though still well below the national average.

“The jobs that are created there will go to the people who live there,” Stewart said. “It’s nobody’s fault. It’s a matter of geography and history.”

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Stewart said he fears a poorly crafted climate bill could lead to a wealth transfer from urban areas with significant black populations to more rural areas.

“From a health sense, a climate bill makes a lot of sense. From an economic sense, there are some questions that I have,” Stewart said.

Both the House and Senate legislation send some revenues from the sale of the permits companies must hold to cover their greenhouse gas emissions to low- to moderate-income households. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that poorer households could see a net financial benefit from climate legislation.

Shelton of NAACP said his group also has lobbied to make sure that high schools, community colleges and colleges and universities that serve minority populations get federal money to help retrain workers in green jobs.

Five words spark insurance lobby fight


A five-word phrase in a bill creating a new federal office on insurance has set off a lobbying clash ahead of a key markup this week.

The House Financial Services Committee is slated to debate legislation as early as Tuesday that would create a new Federal Insurance Office in the Treasury Department. But the measure would empower the new office and the Treasury secretary to coordinate negotiations on “international agreements on prudential measures.”

Those five words, backed by Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D-Pa.), have kicked off a fight between the industry’s biggest lobbying interests. The clash pits groups that traditionally favor greater federal regulation of insurance against those that aim to retain power at the state level.

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) said it “strongly opposes” the current bill, adding that the new power would “constitute a significant shift of authority from the states to the federal government.”

The National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies (NAMIC) also has serious concerns with the measure.

“This has gone from an information-gathering office to potentially resembling a regulator,” said Jimi Grande, senior vice president at NAMIC.

The American Insurance Association (AIA) strongly supports the international authority. “Any further weakening of the Federal Insurance Office’s international authority would be detrimental to the U.S.’s credibility on insurance regulatory matters in international negotiations and the property-casualty industry’s ability to remain competitive,” said Blain Rethmeier, senior vice president at AIA.

The Obama administration and congressional allies intended to avoid the question of whether the federal government should regulate insurance or whether it should create a new federal charter for the industry. Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Kanjorski have both said they intend next year to debate the stronger form of federal regulation.