Want to Win the Climate Fight? Engage Communities of Color

04/22/2015 03:01 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2015

By Congresswoman Barbara Lee and Van Jones

As we celebrate Earth Day, it's a good time to remember that pollution and climate change aren't just environmental issues. They're justice issues.

Worldwide, people of color shoulder a heavier burden from toxic water, contaminated air, and dwindling natural resources. The same is true in America.

For example, African Americans living in Los Angeles are twice as likely to die in a heat wave than other city residents. As a result of climate change, urban heat waves are on the rise and the risk is growing. In cities across the country, poverty and inequality have created a perfect storm that traps black families in neighborhoods with few trees, little shade, and lack of access to air conditioning or cars that allow them to escape when severe weather hits.

It's not just the record heat. When disasters strike, no matter where, people with the fewest resources have a harder time preparing, escaping, and recovering. Just look at what happened with Hurricane Katrina or how the BP oil spill dramatically impacted Gulf Coast's Vietnamese-American community. When Superstorm Sandy hit, it wreaked havoc on New York's poor neighborhoods, including causing pervasive respiratory illness among low-income residents whose homes were struck by mold.

The pollution that's driving climate change also disproportionately affects communities of color. In fact, 78 percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a toxic-spewing coal plant, which helps explain why one out of six black kids suffers from asthma -- compared with a national average of one in ten.

According to Hector Sanchez, chair of the National Latino Coalition on Climate Change, more than 80 percent of Latinos live in counties that violate at least one federal air-pollution law and Latino children are two and half times more likely to develop asthma than non-Latinos.

Given that communities of color pay the heaviest toll, it's not surprising that they consistently demonstrate the highest level of support for protecting clean air and fighting climate change. A 2014 Green For All poll showed that 68 percent of minority voters favor immediate action to address climate change. Last month, a Benenson Strategy Group poll showed that a whopping 85 percent of African Americans support global commitments on climate--the largest percentage of any demographic group. Climate change will likely be a major issue for our nation's 17.8 million black voters in the 2016 presidential election.

People of color need to play a larger role in the decision-making on climate and clean air. A recent report by the group Green 2.0 shows that "Despite increasing racial diversity in the United States, the racial composition in environmental organizations and agencies has not broken the 12% to 16% "green ceiling" that has been in place for decades."

We need equal protection from the worst environmental problems. We also need equal access to the best opportunities in the clean energy economy--including jobs in solar, wind, and energy efficiency. These kinds of jobs are growing--and they tend to pay more while requiring less formal education, which is a recipe for escaping poverty.

There are millions of black voters who are ready to act on climate; they just need access to the right opportunity. And once they're in the ring, big polluters won't stand a chance. Polluters know this--that's why they have begun a misinformation campaign claiming that clean energy hurts African American families.

The path forward is clear--and people of color are already leading the way.

In fact, they are largely responsible for one of the country's most cutting-edge--and wildly successful--efforts to slash pollution and poverty: California's cap and trade bill, which makes polluters pay for their climate garbage, and then directs the funds to hard-hit neighborhoods. A coalition of black, Latino, and Asian community groups rallied to advance the legislation in 2012, and it raised $262 million for disadvantaged communities in its first year alone. By 2020, the law will keep a projected 78 million metric tons of carbon pollution out of the air--the equivalent of taking one out of every fifteen cars in America off the road. And it never would have happened without the genius of the state's communities of color.

Climate solutions and pollution safeguards are about so much more than protecting the environment. They're about creating work, health and wealth. They're about righting the ship in neighborhoods that have suffered from decades of racism, divestment, oppression and poverty.

That's why groups like Green For All and members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) and Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) are working to connect more of our folks to the climate policy and clean energy decisions that affect our future. Because the more engaged we are, the better America's solutions to climate change will be.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee represents the East Bay and serves on the Budget and Appropriations Committees. Van Jones served as President Obama's Special Advisor for Green Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and is the founder of Green For All.