For more than two decades, Dr. Warren M. Washington, one of the nation’s leading meteorologists, has been among the U.S. scientists that have studied and predicted the long-term impact greenhouse gas emissions are having on the earth’s climate. Long convinced that reducing climate change requires global action to curtail greenhouse gas emissions, Washington, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., has taken on speaking engagements and activities, such as joining the Commission to Engage African-Americans on Climate Change, to advocate on behalf of people living in economically and socially disadvantaged communities.
After working together for less than a year, Washington and other commission members this past spring shepherded a set of principles to help guide the protection of minorities and poor people and presented them to congressional leaders and staffers who have been working on comprehensive climate change and clean energy legislation currently under consideration by Congress, according to Washington.
Passed by the House of Representatives in late June as the American Clean Energy and Security Act, the legislation, also known as the Waxman-Markey bill after sponsors Reps. Henry Waxman and Ed Markey, would establish a wide range of clean air emissions standards, clean energy job programs, and renewable energy technology development initiatives to facilitate the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. The Senate is considering climate change and clean energy legislation and is expected to approve such legislation this year. “I think that in the Waxman-Markey bill that there was a very sincere effort on the part of Congress to take (low-income and minority community) concerns into account. It’s hard to say how much the commission has done versus other groups, but I think we can be a very effective body to have direct input into congressional leaders,” Washington said.
Launched formally in July 2008, the Commission to Engage African-Americans on Climate Change (CEAC) has sought to shape comprehensive clean energy and climate change legislation but is also moving to help bring historically Black colleges and universities into national environmental and renewable energy projects being undertaken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions with clean renewable energy technologies. The commission has also undertaken a national public education and outreach campaign, which includes townhall meetings around the country, to educate and engage Blacks on climate change.
“The biggest thing we’ve done so far is getting these principles out (to Congress) and the second thing is having the town hall meetings and workshops,” Washington says. “I think there we can act as a group that listens to local people and fi nd out what’s really on their mind in terms of impacts of climate change.”
Getting Set Up The commission was launched by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, an African-American think tank based in Washington, D.C. The 18-member commission includes a cross-section of scientists, environmental justice scholaradvocates, energy business executives, policy experts and political offi cials. Dr. Julianne Malveaux, president of Bennett College for Women; Benjamin T. Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP; Dr. Beverly Wright, executive director of the Deep South Environmental Justice Center at Dillard University; and Texas State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, are among the commission members.
Gina E. Wood, director of policy and Planning at the Joint Center, traces the commission’s origins to the fall of 2007 when then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama presided over a panel discussion on climate change during the Congressional Black Caucus annual legislative weekend. An overwhelming turnout of more than 2,000 attendees alerted policy officials and activists to the potential of mobilizing Blacks around the climate change issue.
“I spoke about climate research and climate modeling. I thought that only a few hundred people were going to show for this session; it was in the thousands,” recalls Washington, a panel member.
During that same period, Wood says the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center and the Hewlett Foundation approached the Joint Center about creating an organization that could educate as well as encourage Blacks to take action on climate change issues. The Joint Center secured a grant from the Hewlett Foundation of $500,000 over three years to support the commission and other activities, such as hosting a visiting scholar to conduct research on climate change policies and implementation.
Wood notes that the commission has shown the potential to be a powerful advocate for HBCU participation in climate change educational outreach and policy initiatives. The first climate change town hall meeting undertaken by the commission and the Joint Center was held at Howard University in February and it featured Lisa Jackson, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator, as a keynote speaker. The town hall meeting drew students from several HBCU campuses. Since then, the Joint Center has been developing a partnership with the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO) to help assist NAFEO’s HBCU members to participate in energy conservation construction projects and renewable energy research, among other activities, according to Wood.
“The commission has been provided an opportunity to bring together various players to the table. It has a big responsibility,” says Dr. Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University. “The commission has reached out to HBCUs and it’s reached out to ordinary people.”
“There is a fierce urgency regarding climate change and its effects on the African- American community,” says Ralph B. Everett, president and CEO of the Joint Center and co-chair of the CEAC. “People need to understand what is at stake â€” our very health and economic well-being. We are encouraged by the attention Congress and the administration are giving to the concerns of communities of color regarding these issues.”
Among its recommendations, the CEAC has urged federal officials to direct the EPA “to develop guidelines and methodologies for states to identify the most impacted and disadvantaged communities.” This accounting would take into effect geographical areas where air quality has been poor; areas, such as the Gulf Coast states, that are expected to bear the most damage from climate change-related weather problems; areas that are closest to major highways and stationary greenhouse gas emitters like coal-based energy plants; and racial demographics and income distributions. The CEAC says such data are critical to devising new policies because evidence shows that disadvantaged communities have already been the hardest hit during past events, such as heat waves, severe hurricanes and increases in ozone pollution. Climate change is predicted to increase the likelihood of severe weather disruptions and heat waves in southern U.S. geography.
The CEAC has also made recommendations to ensure minority and low-income participation in the transition from a high carbon-based economy, which is heavily reliant on fossil fuels for energy production and transportation, to a low carbon-based economy where renewable energy sources substantially limit the emissions of greenhouse gases. The commission urges minority- serving institutions to play a significant role in training graduates for high-skill and high-wage “green” jobs.
“We know that big changes are going to happen. Parts of the (Waxman-Markey) bill will radically remake energy policy and climate change policy,” says Dr. Michael
K. Dorsey, an assistant professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College who has signed on to advise the commission and Joint Center officials as a visiting scholar.
The CEAC is well aware that it can advocate for “Black and Brown communities gaining two things. One is having adequate resources come their way. And two is making sure that new institutions addressing climate change have leadership and participation from underrepresented minority and low-income communities,” Dorsey notes.
A ‘Holistic’ Approach
In having scholars such as Bullard and Wright represented on the commission, the Joint Center expects to leverage the experience and success of individuals who have long been active in the environmental justice movement. Dorsey notes that activists and scholars made “environmental justice” into a major issue in national environmental policy with concrete policy outcomes.
“The reality is that those outcomes were largely driven by scholars of color, such as Bob Bullard at Clark Atlanta and Bunyan Bryant at the University of Michigan, and policymakers of color,” Dorsey says.
For his part, Bullard believes the “green” movement in the United States has not placed enough emphasis on equity. “I don’t think there’s been enough emphasis on legacy issues. A lot of the dialogue assumes a clean slate and a level playing field. But that’s not the reality,” he says.
Bullard says discussions of climate change policy are heavy on energy policy and have a limited focus on dealing with health disparities and economic development in poor urban communities. There’s a lot of talk about putting hybrid cars on the road, but that focus leaves out the people who depend on public transit, he says.
“A quarter of African-Americans don’t even own cars. We should be talking more about public transit,” Bullard declares.
He urges public policymakers to “get beyond energy” and approach climate change policy holistically and “put equity at the center.”
“It makes a whole lot of sense to look at things holistically,” Bullard says.