Sixty-eight percent of African-Americans live within thirty miles of a coal-fired power plant, the zone of maximum exposure to pollutants that cause an array of ailments, from heart disease to birth defects. Communities of color breathe in nearly 40 percent more polluted air than whites. African-American children are three times as likely to suffer an asthma attack.
The NAACP launched its Climate Justice Initiative address the stark numbers head on. Working in conjunction with Little Village Environmental Justice Organization and Indigenous Environmental Network, the Initiative published “Coal-Blooded: Putting Profits Before People” in 2012, which evaluated the impact of 378 coal-fired power plants on communities along racial and economic lines. “Just Energy Policies: Reducing Pollution and Creating Jobs,” released in December, looked at the energy policies of all fifty states through a civil rights lens.
We spoke with Jacqueline Patterson, executive director of the NAACP’s Climate Justice Initiative, about her organization’s work. (This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
Why did the NAACP launch the Climate Justice Initiative?
The NAACP launched the CJI because of a recognition of the impact both of climate change itself and how it disproportionately impacts marginalized communities, low-income communities and communities of color. We looked at how climate change violates the civil rights of those communities, whether it’s because of pre-existing vulnerabilities in the impact of disasters or whether its the redevelopment process and how lots of time and resource allocation is cut along political lines and folks are already disenfranchised. The actual drivers of climate change, whether its roadway pollution or traffic vehicles or if its polluted facilities like coal plants, are disproportionately affecting communities of color and low-income communities.
As your organization reports, 68 percent of African-Americans live within thirty miles of a coal-fired power plant. That’s pretty stark. How did we get here?
There’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation here. In some cases, the facilities were already there before the communities. The communities are-low income or low-wealth, and they moved into an area where property values are on average 15 percent lower because that’s what they can afford. That’s one dynamic. You also have companies choosing to build facilities where property values are lower and property values are lower in low-income communities, so we’ll see disproportionate placement in those communities. They’ll also choose communities where they won’t get political push back. You’ll see that kind of pattern everywhere. It’s tied to voter disenfranchisement and the lack of political power that communities of color have.
Civil rights isn’t usually one of the first things that come up in discussions about climate change. Why is that?
Clearly, traditional environmental analysis and messaging around climate change has dominated the airwaves. There are more resources for the Sierra Club and National Wildlife Federation, not to mention folks like Al Gore. With those groups, their focus is on glaciers, flora, fauna and wildlife. That has been the focus of climate change, historically.