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Environmental Racism Is Real—and Climate Change Is Making It Worse

Environmental Racism Is Real—and Climate Change Is Making It Worse: Steven Clevenger / Getty

Steven Clevenger / Getty

Last month, think tank Demos and environmental advocacy group NextGen Climate released a study projecting that millennials could lose up to $8.8 trillion in lifetime income if climate change is not addressed. Combined with the cost of a warmer planet, the study’s findings show inaction would leave millennials with an additional climate tax of thousands of dollars per individual—and that’s without taking into account the financial impacts of natural disasters, disease outbreaks and health costs. According to the study, a 2015 college graduate with a median income would lose $126,000 in lifetime income and $187,000 if long-term savings were to be invested.

The takeaway is obvious: climate change is threatening to impose another financial burden on the first generation destined to be worse off economically than their parents, and one that is already battling looming student loans and a tough job market. Working in tandem against millennials, the recession and global warming could have a disproportionate harmful impact on blacks and Latinos specifically. School dropout rates and student debt, which hit minorities the hardest, contribute to income gaps and drive blacks and Latinos into a deeper financial hole. They also face discrimination because of where they tend to live.

“Low-income and communities of color are among those who are most vulnerable to climate change impacts,” says Sara Jordan, a policy manager at NextGen Climate. “For instance, Latinos and African Americans—who are more likely to live in communities impacted by air pollution—suffer disproportionate rates of asthma and other respiratory diseases often linked to these pollutants.”

Along with living closer to environmentally dangerous areas, communities of color have a less likely chance to be well-insured or have savings, making recovery from a major flood or heat-related diseases more challenging. Eleven years after Hurricane Katrina, one of the costliest and fatal natural disasters, 96,000 less African Americans live in New Orleans and the predominantly black working-class Seventh Ward is only 60 percent rebuilt. Prior discriminatory lending policies also segmented black homeownership in New Orleans, leaving black homeowners more than three times as likely to live in a flooded home than a white homeowner. In New Jersey, half of renters victimized by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 were people of color.      

The outcome of the economic-environmental crisis hovers between meltdown and meaningful change, the latter only possible if a mass green energy policies are embraced.

Transitioning to a clean energy economy would combat climate change and counterpunch sluggish job prospects troubling the workforce. Investment in that industry would bring one million new jobs by 2030, two million jobs by 2050 and add $800 billion in GDP, according to an ICF study funded by NextGen Climate. That involves shifting to energy efficient housing (which also saves on energy bills), investing in renewable power sources (like solar and wind) to cut down on carbon emissions and focusing on sustainable public transportation.  

"I think there’s a huge opportunity for millennials to really be a part of this green revolution, whether its deploying the latest technology or actually doing the application of these technologies on the sites,” says Kim Glas of BlueGreen Alliance, a labor environmentalism organization.

Blacks and Latinos stand to capitalize on investments in green energy jobs. Vien Truong, the director of Green For All, an environmental justice group working with underserved communities, says jobs in energy efficiency, like solar power, make sense because they require domestic and entry-level workers.

“These are not jobs you can outsource,” Truong says. “They’re jobs that have to be in the community, and jobs that create pathways into owning small businesses or moving into the labor workforce.”

The study was released ahead of President Barack Obama’s semi-friendly meeting with China’s president, Xi Jinping, wherein the leaders submitted their plans to reduce the carbon footprints of their respective countries. Their meeting progressed the global effort to convince world leaders to adopt the Paris Agreement; the agreement requires the participation of 55 nations to take effect.

November’s election will be the first time millennials match the voting bloc of Baby Boomers, but power in numbers only materializes if millennials show up to vote and choose policymakers—and a president—who take climate change seriously. NextGen Climate, through its Super PAC, has taken to canvassing in eight battleground states and more than 200 college campuses to inform millennials and advocate for policymakers who favor climate change policies—an issue that pits them against the fossil fuel industry and its preferred political party.    

“We’re focused on electing leaders who will make addressing climate change a priority,“ Jordan says. "Millennial voters care about this issue, and they’re no doubt seeing a stark contrast up and down the ballot between Democrats and Republicans in terms of which party supports climate action, and which party continues to bury their head in the sand.”

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