Black History Month is a time to reflect on the contributions African Americans have made to this country. We are right to pause and look back on those who have fought for justice and equal rights. But we mustn’t stop there. We also need to look forward and act to address one of the deadliest legacies of racial inequality: toxic pollution that is harming our children and poisoning our environment.
We knew it then and we know it now: black lives matter. This is not to the exclusion that all lives matter, but the focus should be on those who have been underserved and those who are more vulnerable.
In the U.S., we are seeing an alarming health crisis in the African-American community from climate change and air pollution. Historically, African Americans have had higher rates of asthma than the national average. And the problem is only growing worse: The greatest rise in asthma rates recently is seen among black children.
Nineteen million African-American families live in areas with unhealthy levels of ozone in the air. And climate change is expected to exacerbate already dangerous air quality, which will increase the likelihood of asthma attacks.
In addition to poor air quality, climate change will affect vulnerable populations through increased flooding, severe storms, and heat stresses. Although all are affected, the increased frequency and severity of catastrophic floods, lengthy droughts, wildfires and other extreme weather events is disproportionately challenging low-income families who do not have the resources to adequately prepare and recover. Recently, we have seen in each weather related disaster — from Katrina to Columbia, S.C., to Superstorm Sandy — that low-income and communities of color suffer the most.
As the people of God, as people of faith, we know that how we treat God’s earth and God’s people are connected to our faith. We have a moral obligation as a nation to address climate change and to protect all lives, but most importantly the lives of vulnerable populations.
The black church is no longer on the sideline when it comes to climate change. Over the last several months, leaders in the black church have been able to gather close to 14,000 signatures in support of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. These signers represent black churches across the country and are calling for support to protect the air we breathe from climate pollution.
The Clean Power Plan is the single biggest and most ambitious action the U.S. has ever taken to tackle climate change. It sets the first-ever limits on dangerous carbon pollution from power plants. States now have an opportunity to craft customized implementation plans that will spark investments in clean, renewable energy along with energy efficiency measures to create good-paying jobs and save people money on their electric bills. This is an opportunity to help create robust, vibrant communities that are built on a future of clean energy.
The health benefits of the Clean Power Plan are significant – the co-benefit soot and smog reductions in 2030 will avoid up to 3,600 premature deaths, 90,000 asthma attacks in children, and 300,000 missed school and work days. The estimated public health and climate benefits are $34 billion to $54 billion per year in 2030, significantly outweighing the costs of $8.4 billion.
This month, we are honoring African-American leaders that left a better world for us. Now it is time for us to ask the question: What kind of world are we passing on our children and grandchildren? Pollution is an equal opportunity antagonist. Because of this, we in the black church have come together around the issue of addressing climate change. We are working to care for and protect future generations by addressing the impacts of carbon pollution, especially as they wreak havoc on the poorest and most vulnerable among us.
Pope Francis has called on all people of good will to protect Creation, and specifically to care for the climate, which he calls “a common good, belonging to and meant for all.” His encyclical reminds us that it is the world’s poor who bear the brunt of the crisis. As Americans and people of faith, we take this call to heart and urge our country to become a leader in creating solutions to climate change and building a new clean energy economy.
I call on our elected officials in Washington to embrace the fact that all lives matter and to not impede policies or legislation that will combat climate change and protect vulnerable populations.