Climate bill doesn't do enough for people of color

Marqus Cole
Progressive Perspectives (TNS)
The Flint Water Plant tower is shown January 13, 2016 in Flint, Michigan. (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images/TNS)

As the recently signed Inflation Reduction Act makes waves for its positive impacts on human health and the climate, the bill’s supporters shouldn’t forget the communities living in the throes of environmental violence that won’t have justice through the act alone.

This summer marks the eighth anniversary of the initial “water boil” advisory in Flint, Michigan. Government officials had changed the drinking water source for the mostly Black city to the polluted Flint River as a cost-cutting measure, causing the water crisis that would make Flint the poster child for environmental injustice.

Flint residents became the center of the call for environmental justice, but their situation was not unique.

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Morrisonville, Louisiana, was a small town established by freed slaves following the end of the Civil War. In 1958, Dow Chemical moved into the neighborhood to produce vinyl chloride. The groundwater was so contaminated that, by 1989, Dow relocated Morrisonville’s residents, and the historic community was lost forever. Morrisonville became another casualty of the chemical industry in a corridor of land between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that is now known as “Cancer Alley.”

Port Arthur, Texas, is home to one of the largest oil refinery complexes in the world. The local refinery industry spews benzene, a known cancer-causing toxin, into the air around the city, whose population is 95% Black. Houston, the third-largest hotspot for cancer-causing air pollution in the country, is only an hour and a half west of Port Arthur.

Rome, Georgia, a small town near Atlanta, recently had its drinking water supply diverted from the Oostanaula River due to contamination by PFAS, or “forever chemicals.” The source of the contamination, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, began “dozens of miles upstream in Dalton…the epicenter of U.S. carpet manufacturing.”

Throughout the United States, 50% of residents who live within one mile of the 1,866 active EPA Superfund sites are people of color. This despite the fact that Black and brown people only account for 39% of the nation’s population as a whole.

As a Black millennial and a Christian climate organizer, I’m calling for an honest assessment of the climate crisis, including an admission that communities of color are disproportionately harmed and silenced in the quest for climate solutions. When communities of color are written out of the conversation, they disproportionately suffer the public harm without seeing any economic benefit.

To be sure, the IRA should be celebrated for many of its provisions, but it’s insufficient in important ways. Trickle-down climate solutions like tax rebates for businesses and homeowners that switch to clean and energy efficient technologies won’t cut it. These solutions fail to account for the historic injustice of housing policies that led to only 43.4% of Black Americans being homeowners, a rate that’s lower than it was a decade ago.

If climate solutions don’t take racial equity into account, our policies will continue to fall short of what it takes to protect all Americans.

— Marqus Cole is a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.