Environmental injustice is rising in the US. Minorities and the poor pay the price

Article by Mustafa Santiago Ali

When you intentionally dismantle and deconstruct these basic environmental protections, you are placing the lives of vulnerable people at risk.

At a campaign stop in 2016, candidate Donald Trump asked African Americans, “What do you have to lose?” After almost a year with him in office, the answer is clear for people of color; we have everything to lose, especially with the all-out assault on health and environmental protections.

Protecting the environment is about protecting people. The assault the Trump administration is waging on our environment will have drastic implications for the health of people and communities in every state, no matter the color of skin or income level.

Yet, America’s most vulnerable communities – including black, Latino, Asian, Indigenous and low-income white Americans – will be disproportionately impacted by the decisions being made by the president’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator, Scott Pruitt.

This week Administrator Pruitt and the Trump administration held their first and so far only scheduled public hearing about their move to repeal the Clean Power Plan, the first US steps to cut carbon pollution from power plants.

The Clean Power Plan, even by the Trump administration’s own estimates, could prevent up to 4,500 premature deaths, 1,700 heart attacks, 90,000 asthma attacks and 300,000 missed days of work or school a year.

The plan enhances additional opportunities in the nation’s clean energy sector, including solar and wind power. Clean energy jobs are now growing 12 times faster than the rest of the US economy and jobs in the clean energy industry outnumber jobs in the fossil fuel industry five to on Analysisshows that it could create 560,000 jobs and boost our GDP by over $50bn in 2030.

By taking a big cut out of our fossil fuel use that is warming the planet, the plan is also the largest action ever taken by the US to address climate change. The vast impacts of climate change on vulnerable communities are well documented and easy to see – just look at the record storms earlier this year made stronger by climate change, devastating communities from Puerto Ricoto Houston.

However, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, who has deep ties to the fossil fuel industry and political ambitions of his own, has made repealing the Clean Power Plan a top priority since taking office. By doing this, Pruitt and the administration are dismissing the plan’s immense benefits to public health and economic opportunities for the communities who need them the most.

They’re also showing they don’t value the voices – 83% of African Americans support the Clean Power Plan – or lives of the vulnerable communities who bear the impacts of climate change and air pollution first and worst.

Communities of color and low-income communities already face health disparities, including much higher rates of asthma. And it’s often overlooked that many also live very close to polluting power plants, including 68% of blacks and nearly 40% of Latinos.

The health impacts of that proximity are stark for these frontline communities.

The NAACP, National Medical Association, and Clean Air Task Force just released a landmark report demonstrating, for the first time, the specific health risks from airborne pollutants caused by fossil fuel development and the elevated risk of cancer due to toxic air exposure impacting African-American communities.

Yet, instead of helping those suffering, the administration is doing away with rules to limit dangerous pollution, as industry insiders do everything they can to shift the blame, like falsely claiming that African Americans’ increased rates of cancer from exposure to air pollution are due to genetics (something Big Tobacco did for years).

As I travel around our country, I don’t hear support for repealing health protections. Speaking with hundreds of communities from Appalachia, to the Gulf Coast, the rust belt and beyond, people are afraid of losing their human and civil right to clean air, clean water and clean land.

The vulnerable communities I meet with are very aware that when you intentionally dismantle and deconstruct these basic protections that they fought for, as the Trump administration continues to do, you are placing their lives and the lives of their children at risk.

For communities of color, the question is still “What do you have to lose?” And after this first year, the answer is very clear: everything.

The Trump administration’s decisions, especially when it comes to the environment, prove that they do not hear you, care about you, or value your life or the lives of your children. That’s why vulnerable communities and others must push back, speak out and protect vital policies like the Clean Power Plan. We can’t do nothing. We have too much to lose.

  • Mustafa Santiago Ali is senior vice-president of Climate, Environmental Justice, & Community Revitalization at Hip Hop Caucus. He was a founding member of Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Justice
  • An earlier version of this article was erroneously published. It was updated on 3 December 2017 and modified to include later additions.