A clean energy economy is crucial for frontline communities

A clean energy economy is crucial for frontline communities
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The rippling effects of climate change will impact every community, region and country on this planet. A new study found that 85 percent of the world’s population has already been impacted by the worsening climate crisis. For Black and Brown communities in the United States, this will come as no surprise. The same diseases that are sickening our planet — the impacts of fossil fuel — are sickening frontline communities, resulting in alarming statistics. But building an economy rooted in clean energy is a cure for these converging crises — the climate crisis, the public health impacts of fossil fuels, and the economic impacts of the pandemic.

The unequal impact of environmental racism on Black and Brown communities has been documented for decades. Black Americans are 75 percent more likely than white Americans to live near areas that produce emissions, pollution and traffic and 40 percent more likely to live in places where extreme heat will result in higher mortality. Indigenous communities that rely on robust and healthy wildlife and ecosystems are in danger of losing crucial sources of economic stability and food.

Infrastructure investments laid out in the bipartisan infrastructure legislation that Congress just passed and Build Back Better plan still in negotiation may be our last, best chance to rectify these staggering statistics. The investments would make it easier to build facilities that prevent the release of carbon dioxide or capture existing carbon from the air we breathe. They would invest in manufacturing projects supporting renewable technologies, particularly in low-income and frontline communities, resulting in more jobs and economic opportunities. And these investments would harness the power of nature as an ally, not just in solar and wind energy, but in making coasts and shorelines more resilient to the impacts of climate change.

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The latest report from the UN’s panel on climate change documented the trajectory of this crisis and found that the effects of climate change are already widespread, severe and will continue to drive worsening droughts, floods, heat, wildfires and storms. But the report also identified the path forward — lowering the emissions that drive the climate crisis while investing in an economy built on clean energy solutions.

But charting a path to a clean economy future must also take into account the needs of Black and Brown communities who are on the frontlines of both the economic and climate crises. This means not only building resilience to a changing climate but ensuring that the voices of our communities are uplifted in the process and economic opportunities are available equitably.

One way we can achieve this is through collaborative discussions that bring together Black, Latino, Indigenous, Asian and Pacific Islander leaders and advocates of color to discuss and amplify clean economy opportunities. The National Wildlife Federation’s Clean Economy Coalition of Color is just one initiative that brings together these leaders to guide clean energy economy policies and implementation. The clean energy and climate solutions proposed by leaders from these resilient communities can help address environmental injustices, improve climate resilience and reduce carbon emissions.

 

The transition to an equitable clean economy is going to take work and we need to make sure it equally benefits all Americans. Funding for infrastructure projects should also include economic investments, like additional resources for people of color to own and invest in sustainable businesses and investment in community-based workforce development in communities of color that leave people with marketable skills for clean energy projects. We also need programs like the civilian climate corps that provide opportunities for young people to restore natural resources, create outdoor recreation spaces in cities and recover wildlife populations. Crucially, we also need measures of accountability that ensure that money is being spent equitably and filtering down to communities of color.

Leaders in Washington right now have a rare opportunity to not only address the catastrophic climate, racial injustice and economic crises facing our country but to create a better path forward. A path forward that elevates the voices and needs of communities of color while creating an economy that is healthier, more sustainable and that directly addresses the root causes of the climate crisis. There are clear answers in politics — investing in a clean energy economy is one of them. 

Mustafa Santiago Ali is vice president of environmental justice, climate and community revitalization at the National Wildlife Federation, America's largest conservation organization, uniting all Americans to ensure wildlife thrive in a rapidly changing world.