Congressman Elijah Cummings

As the AFRO-American reported in June, our nation’s Black doctors are deeply concerned about the dangers climate change poses to our health. Since Americans of Color are especially vulnerable to those threats, measures to better protect our planet are fast becoming critical civil rights objectives.

A survey conducted among members of the National Medical Association found overwhelming evidence that, where our health is concerned, climate change is no longer a future threat.

We are being harmed now by extreme weather events, chronic illness due to air pollution, increased allergic reactions and heat-related conditions.

These on-the-spot medical reports are supported by the recent National Climate Assessment.  Climate change is harming the health of many Americans, especially those of us who are vulnerable because of our poverty, our age or our medical conditions.

Failing to clean up our environment is harmful to everyone – but minorities are most at risk.  This is why civil rights advocates, as well as health professionals and environmental activists, applauded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s June proposal to cut carbon dioxide emissions from aging, coal-fired power plants.

Supporters of the Obama Administration’s initiative recognize that – in the bigger picture of national and world politics – the EPA’s proposal is an important (if gradual) first step toward addressing the environmental dangers that threaten our way of life.

The proposed rules are staged-in over a period of 16 years, giving our economy time to adapt and state governments flexibility in choosing how best to achieve the federal carbon reduction goals.

Despite the opposition of the coal industry and its allies in the Congress, it can hardly be denied that older power plants, especially those fired by coal, are the largest source of America’s greenhouse emissions (38 percent).

Aging plants also are significant sources of other air pollutants, discharging large amounts of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury and soot into the air that we breathe.

EPA experts contend that the proposed carbon reduction rules and related strategies would cut these dangerous pollutants by 25 percent when fully implemented.  Those pollution reductions, in turn, would help our nation avoid as many as 6,600 premature deaths and 159,000 serious asthma attacks each year.

That would be very good news for our nation’s minority communities.  Consider this.

Sixty-eight percent of African Americans live within thirty miles of a coal-fired power plant – the zone of maximum exposure to pollutants that contribute to heart disease and other deadly conditions.  As a group, we breathe nearly 40 percent more pollutants in our air than do Caucasians, and our children are three times more likely to suffer asthma attacks.

This is why the NAACP has recognized that mitigating the causes of climate change (especially the dangers posed by coal-fired energy) is an important civil rights objective.

“Coal pollution is literally killing low-income communities and communities of color,” former NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous asserted in 2012.  “There is no disputing the urgency of this issue.”

More recently, while awaiting the EPA’s proposed carbon reduction ruling, Jacqueline Patterson, executive director of the NAACP’s Climate Justice Initiative, emphasized the civil rights significance of the EPA’s role in seeking to achieve truly “clean coal.”

“Just lessening the carbon in the atmosphere will save lives and prevent people from being harmed,” she concluded.  “The same facilities that are driving climate change are also sickening communities with mercury, arsenic, lead and other things being emitted.”

We all have a public health interest in assuring that our nation moves forward with President Obama’s environmental initiatives – and recently, the organization, Green for All, released polling data confirming  that minority voters understand the dangers of climate change and support corrective action.

Two out of three minority voters feel climate change is an issue we need to be worried about right now; six out of ten say not enough resources are being devoted to the challenge; and fully three out of four of us agree new EPA carbon pollution standards will spur innovations to keep energy prices low and create new industries with good-paying jobs.

These are strong indicators of support within America’s minority communities. Yet, as with the political debates about our healthcare, the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, and other initiatives that go to the center of our lives, President Obama’s efforts to protect us from climate change are under relentless attack.

This battle is being waged in the EPA, in our courts and in the Congress of the United States.  It will be a major issue on Election Day this year and in the presidential election of 2016.

Along with our allies within the multiracial coalition that elected the President in 2008 and 2012, we must work together to support President Obama and his Administration’s climate change plan.

This is a civil rights struggle – one that we must win.  We are fighting for our health, for our future prosperity and for generations yet unborn.

Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.


Congressman Elijah Cummings

Special to the AFRO