Groups are turning up the pressure on Congress to do more for black communities being battered by strong storms, rising tides, and intense heat.
Climate change is striking first at low-income black communities around the country, black leaders said at a heated recent roundtable in Washington, where the message for lawmakers was clear: They need to do more.
“People of color have always been on the front line of this movement. We’re hit first and hit worst,” said Alaina Beverly, an Obama White House urban affairs official who’s now vice president for urban affairs at the University of Chicago’s Office of Federal Relations in Washington. “This is our issue.”
Most of the worst effects of climate change are hitting—and lingering in—poor black neighborhoods in the South, according to the Rev. Leo Woodberry, executive director of the New Alpha Community Development Corporation in Florence, S.C.
In coastal South Carolina, for example, residents in largely black towns have been told they won’t be eligible for flood insurance if they don’t elevate their homes; but a survey of local engineering groups showed the cost starts at $20,000 for a 900-square-foot house, Woodberry said.
In New York City, many residents who die from heat stroke are African American, Peggy Shepard, executive director of West Harlem Environmental Action Inc., also known as WE ACT for Environmental Justice, said at a Sept. 12 roundtable hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, where Beverly and Woodberry also spoke.
“This is about social disruption,” Shepard said. “Extreme heat is killing thousands every year.”
Blacks are 52% more likely than whites to live in urban heat islands, which soak up more heat than other parts of a city, according to a 2013 study by researchers from the University of California, Berkeley. That threat puts people in those areas at greater risk during spikes in temperature, the study concluded.
“There’s no question that this is a topic area that black politicians, including the CBC [Congressional Black Caucus], have not focused on as much,” Thomas A. LaVeist, dean of Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, said in an interview. “And I think it’s because the stereotype is that the environment is about tree hugging or saving exotic birds.”
Ideas From the Hill
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus say they’ve heard the call and are working on solutions. The caucus is made up of 55 African American members of the House and Senate.
“I think we’re going to be energetic in supporting any legislation that is aimed at improving the environment, but I also have to tell you how congested the major issues have become,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.).
For example, Cleaver said Congress could include language in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s budget to help the agency respond faster to natural disasters in poor black areas.
The National Flood Insurance Program could be tweaked to include stronger protections for black communities that bear the worst burdens, Cleaver said. Several attempts have already been made to do just that. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the House Financial Services Committee, introduced a bill in June to send more resources to high-risk properties and provide more opportunities for buyouts.
Other lawmakers are swinging for the fences with comprehensive legislation. Reps. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and A. Donald McEachin (D-Va.) are working on a House bill, expected sometime in October, to address the impact of the climate crisis on African Americans and other disadvantaged groups.
The bill will contain many of the same provisions that were in a measure from the last Congress, according to a Democratic House Natural Resources Committee aide. That bill would have mandated an interagency federal strategy on environmental justice for communities of color, as well as low-income, rural, and tribal communities.
“For African Americans and people living in urban poor communities, it provides them with an empowerment tool to enforce the law, to demand action, and to try to get remediation done,” Grijalva told Bloomberg Environment.
But the bill drew scant attention in the last Congress and died in committee. Given the Republican-controlled Senate, there’s little chance of the new version becoming law.
And while Green New Deal resolutions argue climate change has “exacerbated systemic” racial and economic inequities, House Democratic leaders have shown no interest in bringing the platform to a vote on the floor. Republicans who control the Senate argue it would cost trillions.
Another approach is infrastructure, and an aggressive program could make poor black communities more resilient, said Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.).
“A lot of things could be rolled up in that package. We’re talking jobs, health, safety,” said Robert Bullard, a distinguished professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University who has written about race and environmental justice.
Separately, Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), chairwoman of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, is working on a climate bill to be rolled out in March that, among other things, will aim to help communities of color living near pollution sources.
Many House Democrats think there’s value in putting these measures up for a vote, even if they have little chance in the Senate now, to send a message.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y). said the Green New Deal she champions emphasizes remedies for front-line communities.
“I think it’s backwards and shortsighted to say, ‘Well, let’s just throw a bunch of solar panels on everyone’s roof and call it a day,’” she said. “Because you cannot build a winning political coalition to fight climate change on just technocratic solutions. By fighting for the actual justice and livelihood of working people, you are going to create the political energy to actually address climate change.”
Demands on Black Caucus
Some black community leaders want the Congressional Black Caucus to play a bigger role in the climate crisis, sounding the alarm on the impacts and demanding action.
“I think the CBC needs to step up,” said Sacoby Wilson, an environmental health professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health who works on environmental justice research and advocacy. “Maybe it’s the current politics that has limited their effectiveness. It’s the communities who’ve been on top of the climate justice issue.”
To be sure, the Congressional Black Caucus has been focused on issues that are pressing to constituents such as health care, public education, and changes in criminal justice sentencing.
Even so, it also has been increasingly active on the climate issue, said Gabrielle Brown, its spokeswoman. For example, the caucus has created an energy, environmental, and agricultural task force to promote health and clean energy.
‘They’re Waking Up to It’
Its members also worked to provide funding in the farm bill that became law in 2018 to help black farmers keep their land, Brown said.
Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.), a member of the caucus, said the group is “absolutely” more alert to climate issues than it was 10 years ago. “They’re waking up to it more because now you see the health effects, the asthma,” she said.
Nevertheless, Cleaver—also a Congressional Black Caucus member—said the critiques from the African American community are fair.
“We all ran for office, and part of it is interacting, even uncomfortably, with the constituents,” he said. “However, people are demanding so much from us because people are so frustrated. The level of frustration is higher than I have ever seen it in my years involved in politics, going back to 1980.”
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