Environmental Injustice: Pollutants Hurt The Poor The Most

This week in Paris 198 countries met to discuss ways of better cooperating on cutting greenhouse gas emissions. The biggest polluters, namely the U.S., Europe, and China, pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but “climate injustice” remains a huge issue. Even with their pledged reductions, these worst offenders on the global climate stage will use up a greater share of the room for emissions, shutting out smaller, poorer countries. As these countries struggle to develop, they must adopt costly, green technologies even though they did little to contribute to the situation faced today.

On the global stage, this injustice gets significant press attention. But closer to home, another form of environmental injustice is playing out in U.S. cities, disproportionately affecting low-income, communities of color. According to WHYY’s recent podcast, “Minorities, Climate Change, and The Environmental Movement,” 68% of all African-Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant. Coal-fired emissions which include mercury and arsenic contribute to higher rates of asthma-related hospitalizations and deaths in African-American communities. Here in NYC our Equality Indicators study supports these findings: blacks are 5x more likely than whites to be hospitalized for asthma.

Despite the known links between coal-fired plant emissions and negative health outcomes, last summer, the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA unreasonably interpreted the Clean Air Act when it decided to set limits on the emissions of toxic pollutants from power plants without first considering the costs to industry.  Essentially the court ruled that costs to corporations are more important than the health of human beings.

This issue is so pernicious to minority communities, a growing segment of the environmental movement works on remedying what has been termed, “environmental racism.” The leaders include Aaron Mair, the first African-American President of the Sierra Club, Jacqui Patterson, the Director of the NAACP’s Environmental & Climate Justice Program, and Adrianna Quintero, Senior Attorney and Director of Latino Outreach for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Voting rights, redistricting, land use, and the regulatory framework used to site and regulate these plants all come into play in the discussion of where coal-fired plants get placed and the emissions standards used to protect communities from their pollutants. In October, Mr. Mair responded to attacks by opponents to the Clean Air Act using statistics to make the case that climate change is a very real problem. Here are a few of them:

  • 97%: The percentage of scientists who agree that the climate is changing and that human activity is the cause.
  • 2015: expected to be the hottest ever recorded.
  • 60 and 30: 60% of African Americans and Latinos reside in communities with a toxic waste site and within 30 miles of a power plant
  • 7: 7 out of 10 African Americans live in areas with air that is unsafe to breathe.