Celebrating Earth Day with a Commitment to Environmental Justice

Communities of Color Face Risks but Show Strong Support for Climate Policies

See also: A Faith-Based Wake-Up Call on Earth Day by Bishop Gene Robinson

This week we celebrate Earth Day, an international campaign for environmental awareness and protection. While this is a time to celebrate our planet, we are also reminded of the great environmental risks facing communities of color and their resilience to protect both the planet and their communities. We need to address environmental justice in communities of color and recognize their valuable contributions toward a larger climate movement. This should be part of the policy discussion going forward.

Communities of color face elevated health risks because they tend to live in areas where they are disproportionately exposed to high pollution levels. More than 71 percent of African Americans and 66 percent of Latinos live in areas that fail to meet one or more of the Environmental Protection Agency’s air quality standards. Low-income minority groups also tend to be clustered in areas that are particularly vulnerable to climate change.

These unsafe environments cause crippling health disparities. The risk of premature death from fine particle pollution is increased with low socioeconomic status. A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that African-American children have the highest number of asthma attacks among all ethnic groups, and Latino children are 60 percent more likely to suffer from asthma attacks than white children. All this is coupled with the fact that communities of color are the least likely to have health insurance and access to treatment and preventive care.

Sadly, this year’s Earth Day also shares the week with the one-year anniversary of the BP oil disaster. One year has passed and communities of color are still suffering environmental harm. Consider that 39,448 tons of oil waste from the BP oil spill (61 percent) is being dumped into coastal communities highly populated by people of color even though they make up just 22 percent of the coastal counties.

So in addition to their economic struggles and recovery challenges from Hurricane Katrina, these communities are now facing toxic threats that can exacerbate health disparities.

Amidst these challenges, communities of color show a strong commitment to reducing harmful pollution and protecting the planet. Conservatives claim the enforcement of clean air laws will amount to a loss of jobs and a “death for business across the country.” But communities of color rejected that argument. A recent poll conducted by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies demonstrates that the majority of African-American voters believe the United States should pass legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and that clean energy will create more jobs and combat climate change. A large majority of the respondents believe everyone can do something to combat global warming. Similar majorities and views are found within the Latino and Asian communities as well.

These communities’ overwhelming support for the reduction of pollution and greenhouse gases illustrates their strong commitment to protecting the environment, public health, and creating jobs in clean energy.

As we celebrate Earth Day we are reminded of the great environmental challenges faced by low-income communities of color and their devotion to a green economy and society. With more than a billion people participating in Earth Day activities each year, know that communities of color will be taking part in the effort.

Alejandro Garcia is an intern with Progress 2050 and Jorge Madrid is a Research Associate at the Center for American Progress.

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