Is the climate bill good for black America?

Last Friday, the American Climate and Energy Security [ACES] Act sponsored by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) passed through the House bringing the U.S. one step closer to legislation that addresses our global warming and energy problems. The bill passed by a slim margin, 219 to 212...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Republican Rep. Dave Camp holds up a copy of the Waxman-Markey climate change legislation (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Last Friday, the American Climate and Energy Security [ACES] Act sponsored by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) passed through the House bringing the U.S. one step closer to legislation that addresses our global warming and energy problems. The bill passed by a slim margin, 219 to 212 with most Democrats voting for it, and most Republicans against it.

Under ACES language, the U.S. would be subject to a renewable energy standard requiring utilities to use alternative energy sources (wind and solar as popular examples) to meet 20% of electricity demand by 2020; a price on carbon dioxide emissions; a program where the federal government places a cap on carbon emissions and then allocates or auctions emission permits to companies under that cap; and new energy efficiency standards for industries, buildings and appliances.

The bill still must pass through the Senate before hitting President Barack Obama’s desk for signature into law. But as climate legislation debate continues there have been implicit concerns voiced on how it would impact African Americans.

Republicans have made claims that climate legislation would raise utility bill prices for low-income households, and Rep. Artur Davis (D-AL), who is black, bucked his party by voting against it, citing jobs. Given the high percentages of low-income families that are African- and Latino-American, and the predominantly black congressional district Davis represents, many are concerned that climate legislation may have a negative impact for minorities. For the most part these concerns are unfounded.

Republicans claim that heating and light bill expenses would rise under the climate regulations called for in ACES and hurt poor families disproportionately. If true, the 24.7% of African Americans who live in poverty — largest for any race except Native American Indians — would be furthur economically burdened. But it’s not true, according to projections from the EPA and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) who’ve found that utility expenses from climate regulations will only cost families $175 a year on average by 2020.

For low-income families, the CBO estimates poor families would actually save $40 in expenses, meaning it would benefit not harm them. Under the carbon cap program (often referred to as cap-and-trade), the government would raise revenue from the pricing and auctioning off of carbon emission permits, some of which could be used to give the poorest Americans even deeper savings through tax credits and rebates.

Environmental justice advocates worry that the greenhouse gas capping policies in ACES don’t go far enough to address local pollutants, which disproportionately affect the health of minorities. African Americans are more likely than any other race to live within close proximity to a facility with toxic emissions, regardless of income. Black children have alarmingly high asthma rates and black adults have remarkably high cancer rates and risks.

Much of this is because they live in neighborhoods with harmful levels of soot, particulate matter, sulfur dioxide and carcinogens like benzene in the air. These emissions come mostly from waste centers, refineries, petrochemical plants, diesel trucks and other sources often found abundantly near black communities. The cap-and-trade policy, at its best, would address this by forcing businesses to use technology that curbs carbon emissions, which would also trap or eliminate carbon’s co-pollutants like those mentioned above.

But a problem with the ACES bill is that companies can use offsets for permits, meaning instead of curbing their own emissions they can invest in reduction technologies elsewhere in the planet — a reforestation project in Brazil, for example. But a black family in Port Arthur, Texas that lives next to an Exxon plant that is investing its pollution permits in Brazil would continue to suffer, as opposed to if Exxon just invested in technology that would stop its own emissions. The offsets provisions are a real issue black Americans should be wary of.

Jobs are a real concern also for African Americans, who with a 14.9% unemployment rate — again the highest of any race, and the highest since the mid-1980s — can’t afford any legislation that might take away more jobs. Rep. Artur Davis said in an interview that he was voting against ACES because it would put manufacturing companies out of business and Alabama has too many jobs riding on that industry. Missing from his interview was the fact he is running for governor and can’t risk rising job loss if a bill he supported brought those kinds of consequences.

While it is true that many industries would likely lose jobs in the transition to clean energy economy, those jobs would not simply vanish. As new emerging industries are created from the government’s financial incentives provided in ACES, those jobs would come back just in a different form — green jobs. But in order for this to happen the policy can not be watered down anymore than it already has in the House as it moves through the Senate.

The government could not skimp on subsidies and tax credits for new energy companies and facilities that are upgrading their energy infrastructures. ACES provides $190 billion in subsidies for new businesses, technology and research and development. That number can’t go down, and may have to go up, in the Senate version, and would need to be sustained over time. If not, businesses will fail, jobs will vanish and African Americans will be hit the hardest.

As the Senate works on its climate bill version, African Americans should not fear that their gas bills are going to be sky high. But they should be concerned if senators give businesses free passes to continue polluting but not enough financial rewards to keep employment sustainable.

ACES could use a lot of strengthening in those departments, but what was passed is much better than not having regulations and accountability for carbon emissions at all — which is what businesses had for centuries while communities paid for it with their health and lives, as global warming-related disasters like Hurricane Katrina showed.