For the next installment of our “Clear the Air” series on environmental justice, we explore the power of community in shaping environmental decisions.
In recent years, the issue of environmental justice has taken center stage, spurred by commitments from the Biden administration and the growing demand from the public to address environmental inequalities. At the heart of this movement lies a fundamental question: How do communities influence the decisions made about the environment?
Environmental issues, particularly those related to climate change, affect us all. However, the burden is not evenly distributed. Underserved communities, often comprised of people of color, bear a disproportionately heavy load. For instance, according to the Princeton Student Climate Initiative, over a million African Americans live within a mile of natural gas facilities, exposing them to elevated cancer risks due to poor air quality. Moreover, these communities often face severe consequences from natural disasters, with fewer resources for recovery than their white counterparts.
These disparities exist because underserved communities often grapple with longstanding socioeconomic inequities, a legacy of systemic racism, and discriminatory policies. For example, historical housing policies have segregated Black Americans into resource-deprived neighborhoods, resulting in poor living conditions and inadequate infrastructure. Consequently, Black Americans represent a significant portion of energy-poor households in the U.S., living in homes with subpar energy systems. These inequities are beyond the control of individual residents; they are systemic issues that policymakers must address.
ACTIVE ENGAGEMENT FROM THE COMMUNITY IS KEY
Given the multifaceted nature of environmental impact and the disproportionate burdens faced by underserved communities, it becomes evident that diverse perspectives are essential in the decision-making process. As much as policymakers must actively seek the involvement of individuals from Black and Brown communities to ensure that environmental decisions account for the unique challenges and concerns of these populations, the active engagement of these communities is central to the pursuit of environmental equity. We are the custodians of our immediate environment and are uniquely positioned to advocate for change. First and foremost, we must be informed and educated about the environmental issues that impact our lives. This knowledge empowers us to actively participate in decision-making processes and hold public and private stakeholders accountable for their actions. In essence, the power of community lies not just in its ability to demand change but also in its potential to co-create sustainable and equitable environmental solutions. In this way, community-driven initiatives become a driving force for environmental justice, ensuring that no one is left behind.
Equity workforce development opportunities should be a focal point. “The clean energy industry represents an unprecedented opportunity for historically excluded communities to participate in a major economic revolution. However, representation from Black and Brown communities in this sector remains disappointingly scarce.
Though the industry is burgeoning, Black Americans account for only 8% of the workforce. To bridge this gap, empowerment and education are essential. Black communities must be informed about opportunities in the clean energy sector and enabled access to well-paying jobs in this growing field.
A PIVOTAL MOMENT
The recent Walker-Miller Energy Services Resilience and Equity in the Clean Energy Sector Summit (RECESS) in Detroit, Michigan served to do just that and could be a pivotal moment in our collective journey.
A first-of-its-kind Black and Brown Clean Energy conference, RECESS23 gathered essential players from the industry to amplify a clean energy vision centered on equity. One of the sessions, “Radical Collaboration Across Divides,” moderated by Dr. Henry McKoy, the inaugural Director of the Office of State and Community Energy Programs for the U.S. Department of Energy, and featuring esteemed panelists Regina Strong, head of the Office of the Environmental Justice Public Advocate in Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, Tremaine Phillips, commissioner emeritus, Michigan Public Service Commission, and Joi Harris, president and COO of DTE, underscored a crucial truth: addressing the complex challenges before us demands the concerted effort of all stakeholders. And everyone is a stakeholder – utilities, business leaders, the scientific community, academia, historically excluded communities, policymakers, entrepreneurs, and many more.
By coming together, sharing perspectives, and working collaboratively, we can forge a path that leads us toward a future where the principles of equity and justice are not just ideals but lived realities.
Read more from the Clear the Air series: