Course Correction on Climate Change

Posted April 9, 2009 at 9:53am

As the physical manifestations of climate change become increasingly apparent, the leadership on both sides of the political aisle has, thankfully, gotten past the question of whether climate change is the result of human action and is focusing instead on the best way to deal with it. And as the momentum for the first U.S. climate policy builds, a whole host of options are coming to light. Should America pursue energy efficiency? Yes. Renewable energy? Yes. Nuclear energy, natural gas, clean coal, biofuels and every clean or cleaner source or technology that we can find? Yes.[IMGCAP(1)]Good intentions, however, don’t preclude serious problems. The climate change proposals that lawmakers are touting on Capitol Hill are potentially on a collision course with the interests of our country’s underprivileged citizens, the millions of Americans who are concerned about the planet’s future but who are also struggling to pay their energy bills in the here and now.For the many families who live at or below the poverty level, those measures before Congress to protect the environment threaten to increase the number of poor families and further diminish their hopes of ever getting their heads above water.The principal approaches that are being discussed to curtail climate-degrading emissions and transition to clean energy, such as cap-and-trade, come with a substantial price tag. And those costs will be felt disproportionately by the poor. Not only will utility costs increase, but so will the price of most goods and services. For the elderly, the disabled and families of limited means, trying to fix the nation’s climate problem will make heating and cooling their homes more difficult and every trip to the grocery store more painful.For households with incomes of less than $25,000 annually, their direct and indirect energy cost exceeds 26 percent of after-tax income. A cap-and-trade program will raise the cost of energy for everyone. Moreover, unless the policy is designed with substantial foresight, the free-market price of carbon dioxide emissions could see the same kind of volatility and the same kind of incredible escalations that the free-market price of crude saw in 2008. The transition to solar and wind energy will hit particularly at low- and moderate-income minority families — families who live in the nation’s urban centers or in the southeastern states. Our leaders would be mistaken to believe that a single, dramatic increase in the Weatherization Assistance Program will provide a long-term solution. The assistance that it provides will certainly help initially; however, the price increases resulting from climate change regulations will be borne by these families year, after year, after year. The more these families must spend on energy, the less they’ll have to spend on quality food, clothing, health care, education, etc.Attempts to achieve a cleaner environment shouldn’t come at the cost of pushing poor families even further away from the American dream. Yet, that’s exactly where we are heading if climate change remedies, particularly the transition to clean energy, widen the wealth gap in this country. Wealthy individuals have the means to buy hybrid automobiles, compact florescent light bulbs and Energy Star appliances. They can invest in more insulation or low-E windows. In stark contrast, people struggling just to get by will have to drive their inefficient cars and use their outmoded appliances until they simply cannot be repaired again. Even if “being green— can’t be a fully shared American experience, we should, at the very least, take steps to ensure that the poor aren’t inordinately punished by our national efforts to meet this environmental responsibility.There is little doubt that policies should and will be enacted to better preserve the Earth that we all share. The vexing question that we need to answer is whether the responsibility for saving our environment will be responsibly borne or disproportionately borne by the impoverished among us. Little is said about the linkage between climate change remedies and income disparity, but it is indeed another “inconvenient truth— that we cannot ignore. It is not enough to do the right thing; we must do the right thing in the right way.Frank M. Stewart is president of the American Association of Blacks in Energy and a member of the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Advisory Council for Environmental Policies and Technologies.