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ENVIRONMENT: Climate Change Hits African Americans Harder

Eli Clifton

WASHINGTON, Jul 23 2004 (IPS) - The impact of climate change in the United States is felt disproportionately by African American communities, so that measures to mitigate the trend would also benefit that group more than others, says a groundbreaking new report.

The study, commissioned by the Centre for Policy Analysis and Research (CPAR), the policy arm of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBCF), asserts that African American communities are unfairly burdened by the health effects of climate change, including deaths during heat waves and sickness caused by growing air pollution.

Moreover, the report, ‘African Americans and Climate Change: An Unequal Burden’, argues that African American communities, both historically and today, emit less greenhouse gas and are therefore less responsible for climate change than others.

The study, released Wednesday, concludes that effective and successful policies to mitigate climate change could generate large health and economic benefits for African Americans.

“This is the first ever comprehensive exam of health and climate change on African Americans,” said Weldon J Rougeau, president of the Congressional Black Caucus – a non-partisan group that advocates for sustainable change in African American communities – at the release of the report.

The study focuses largely on the immediate health effects felt by African Americans as a result of climate change.

They include sickness caused by a reduction in air quality, deaths from heat waves and other extreme weather events and the spread of infectious diseases, according to Redefining Progress, the California research firm that conducted the study.

Seventy percent of African Americans live in counties that violate federal air pollution standards, and in every one of the 44 major metropolitan areas in the United States, blacks are more likely than whites to be exposed to higher concentrations of toxins in the air they breathe, says the CBCF report.

“(African American) communities are the canaries in the mineshaft,” said Michael Gelobter, executive director of Redefining Progress, at a press conference to release the report.

“Children in West Oakland (a predominantly African American California neighbourhood) are seven times more likely to be diagnosed with asthma than anywhere else in the country,” added Barbara Lee, a member of the House of Representatives from California.

Public health disparities between white and black neighbourhoods across the country follow a “cradle to grave cycle”, she added, suggesting that the administration of President George W Bush commit to the Kyoto Protocol.

The protocol is a treaty negotiated by over 100 countries that calls for 38 of the largest industrial nations to reduce their emissions of the greenhouse gases believed to cause global warming – led by carbon dioxide – to 5.2 percent below their 1990 levels by 2012.

In March 2001, Bush, a Republican, announced the United States would not be bound by the treaty, which had been signed by his Democratic predecessor Bill Clinton.

“The current stalling and denial tactics of the Bush administration and congressional leadership are leaving communities, especially low-income communities of colour, at risk simply for the benefit of energy industries,” David Hamilton, director of the global warming and energy programme at the Sierra Club, a major environmental group, told the news conference.

Related health concerns, highlighted in the report, included the disproportionate number of deaths from extreme heat waves, in central-city African American communities and the spread of infectious diseases, such as malaria and dengue fever, specifically in southern states.

For example, in the 1995 Chicago heat wave mortality rates for African Americans were roughly 50 percent higher than whites, echoing statistics during a heat wave in St. Louis in 1992.

All of these health problems are compounded by the fact that blacks are 50 percent more likely than non-blacks to not have health insurance, according to Redefining Progress statistics.

The report also says African American workers suffer more than others economically from climate change. For example, they are more likely to be laid off due to economic instability caused by events triggered by climate change, such as drought.

Furthermore, African Americans, per capita, tend to use cleaner fuels than other citizens, relying much more heavily on natural gas than on home heating oil or gasoline. African Americans used 30 percent less gasoline than whites, per capita, in 2002, the study says.

But blacks are not to blame for being hit harder by climate change, because their households emit 20 percent less carbon dioxide than white households, says the report. As consumers African Americans use fewer products that produce carbon emissions than other Americans, it adds.

The study concludes that well-crafted energy policies could protect African Americans’ health and jobs in three basic ways.

First, reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 15 percent below 1990 levels would greatly mitigate many of the health effects of climate change, including air pollution-related mortalities, and save an estimated 10,000 African American lives a year by 2020.

Secondly, properly designed energy policies could create large net benefits for African Americans. For instance, if the revenue from carbon charges (taxes on fossil fuel emissions) were used to offset distortionary taxes – such as payroll taxes – dramatic employment benefits, on the order of 800,000 to 1.4 million new jobs, would be felt across the country, suggests the study.

Finally, moving the economy away from fossil fuel dependency would create greater economic stability for the United States, and significantly benefit low-income African American communities through job creation and labour force stability.

Shifting from fossil fuel dependency to renewable energy sources would create more jobs in labour intensive industries, in which many African Americans are employed, and reduce the U.S.’ vulnerability to recessions (during which African Americans are twice as likely to lose their jobs) added the study.

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