Training workers to install solar panels at health clinics in Rwanda provides clean energy, creates jobs, and improves health service delivery. (Walt Ratterman, Sunepi/USAID)
Training workers to install solar panels at health clinics in Rwanda provides clean energy, creates jobs, and improves health service delivery. (Walt Ratterman, Sunepi/USAID)

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The National Urban League’s 2023 report on the State of Black America focuses on connecting the dots between threats to U.S. democracy and threats to Black American lives and livelihoods. That includes climate change, which this year received attention in a special section that featured four additional essays. 

“You can draw a straight line from hate, extremism, conspiracy theories, [and] deniers to the attacks on policies with respect to confronting global warming and climate change,” National Urban League President Marc Morial said. “If you deny climate change, then you deny the existence of environmental racism.”

Created in partnership with the American Council on Renewable Energy, the report’s climate section focused, in part, on the disproportionate harms Black Americans face from climate change and other environmental issues. Dr. Robert Bullard, a pioneering scholar often described as “the father of environmental justice,” penned an essay in the section titled “The Quest for Environmental, Climate and Energy Justice in the United States.” 

“America is segregated, and so is pollution,” the essay reads. 

Other essays centered more specifically on energy injustice. The fossil fuel industry tends to set up its most polluting operations — including pipelines, oil rigs and fracking projects — in poorer areas and in communities of color, Dr. Shalanda H. Baker explained in one essay

“The energy system routinely sacrifices Brown, Black, and Indigenous bodies to keep the lights on for the majority,” Baker, who currently serves as Director of the Office of Economic Impact and Diversity at the U.S. Department of Energy, wrote. “In its current design, the energy system requires a permanent underclass that can be exploited and from which resources can be extracted.”

Baker’s part of the special section — which is an excerpt from her book “Revolutionary Power” — ends on a more positive note. The transition to clean energy, she wrote, offers an opportunity to change the current racist and exploitative energy system model. Two other essays expand on that point, discussing the implications that a society-wide switch to clean energy could have for racial justice. 

“We don’t want to see everybody uptown have solar power, and everybody downtown is stuck with 20th-century power,” Morial, who co-wrote one of the climate essays, said in an interview. “We don’t want to see everybody uptown in a battery-powered car, and everybody downtown’s got an old gas-guzzling jalopy.”

Equity in Renewable Energy

Rolling out renewable energy technology equitably is only one of the justice-related challenges presented by the clean energy transition. The rapidly-growing green jobs sector presents another challenge — as well as an opportunity. Morial compared the clean energy boom to the technology industry that emerged in the late 1990s and early 2000s. 

“The tech economy … left Black workers way behind,” he said. “It was very overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male. And now we’re playing catch-up, because the digital divide is broad. We need to learn from that, and push back against a climate divide or climate justice gap.”

The clean energy sector does currently have a well-documented representation problem. For example, Black people made up less than 10% of the District’s clean energy workforce in 2020, according to a study published by environmental business group E2. That’s despite D.C.’s population being more than 40% Black.

The National Urban League has begun some work to address this gap nationally by connecting qualified candidates from underserved communities to green energy jobs. The organization launched its National Urban Energy Program last year in partnership with the Center for Energy Workforce Development. Supported mostly by a $3 million U.S. Department of Labor grant, the program helps people access apprenticeships for energy sector careers.

“The intersecting demands for climate and racial justice have created a unique opportunity for underrepresented populations to enter the energy industry from the ground floor, as we witness an increased demand for clean energy,” the program’s web page reads.

Economic justice and environmental justice issues are tightly linked, Morial said. He said that the climate section of this year’s State of Black America report represented just the beginning of the National Urban League’s involvement in climate and energy conversations. 

“We have to help people understand: what does equity mean in the climate transformation?” Morial said. “It means everyone having access to the new technology. … And it means also, who gets the jobs.”

Kayla Benjamin covers climate change & environmental justice for the Informer as a full-time reporter through the Report for America program. Prior to her time here, she worked at Washingtonian Magazine...

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