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Conversation With NAACP Climate Justice Initiative Director Jacqueline Patterson

For more than two years the NAACP Climate Justice Initiative has been working to address climate change and help people understand how climate change will impact minorities and low-income communities.
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ROEDGEN, GERMANY - AUGUST 20: A wind turbine at sunset is pictured on August 20, 2010 in Roedgen near Bitterfeld, Germany. Germany is investing heavily in renewable energy production, including wind power and solar, and is seeking to produce 30% of its electricity nationwide with renewables by 2020. (Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)
ROEDGEN, GERMANY - AUGUST 20: A wind turbine at sunset is pictured on August 20, 2010 in Roedgen near Bitterfeld, Germany. Germany is investing heavily in renewable energy production, including wind power and solar, and is seeking to produce 30% of its electricity nationwide with renewables by 2020. (Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)

For more than two years the NAACP Climate Justice Initiative has been working to address climate change and help people understand how climate change will impact minorities and low-income communities. Funded at first by grant money, the initiative has developed from one person going around the country teaching climate justice workshops to placing environmental and climate justice ambassadors at the state and local level -- and today even has four fellows. I talked with Jacqueline Patterson, the director of the program, about how her work is going.

David Vognar: We hear a lot about how climate change will affect poor people overseas due to rising sea levels and poor access to food. How will climate change affect minorities and the poor in the U.S.?

Jacqueline Patterson: There are existing vulnerabilities for people who are in low-income situations whether it's because they are living in conditions of poor housing stock or because they have homes that are in the floodplain or because they have mobility issues, because they don't have vehicles and there is not community infrastructure. There are a range of different, preexisting vulnerabilities so that when things like extreme weather events come along, they are less prepared to be able to respond to them, or to be able to survive them in some cases.There is also, as it relates to the shifting agricultural yield, there is the fact that low-income communities as well as communities of color are disproportionately food deserts and when nutritious food is less available in general then an already preexisting bad condition is made worse for those communities. That's another example. And certainly we've seen with the extreme heat that there have been numerous ways that communities of color, for example, even taking out the income factor, are negatively impacted because there are certain health conditions that are more prevalent in communities of color, whether it's heart conditions, diabetes and so forth. When there are these extreme weather events or extreme heat and the power grid gets overburdened and power goes out, then again disproportionately people who have special health conditions are negatively impacted or literally killed in the process.

DV: Can you tell me some of the history of your initiative?

JP: It all started with the recognition of the disproportionate impact of climate change on a variety of different communities, low-income communities, communities of color, people with disabilities, people with special healthcare needs as we talked about, women. So really recognizing that there are multiple communities that are impacted by climate change and that climate change is already here and it's only getting worse and that we don't have enough in the way of educating the masses around these issues, who are not mobilizing around them on their own behalf. A lot of the folks who are active on it are not necessarily linking with the communities that are most affected by climate change so we really saw that there was a gap and a need.

DV: Authors like Lorna Salzman and Paul Hawken describe social justice and environmental justice as issues that go hand in hand. Salzman has claimed some social justice movements are short-sighted by focusing on human needs rather than preserving life. How do you see climate justice and social justice relating? What do you think of Salzman's assessment?

JP: I see that the environmental movement and the work around climate change had actually, in the U.S., lacked the human dimension. So it was kind of the reverse in terms of that. It was not a holistic approach and that's why whenever I was doing the different workshops and so forth with our constituency, they thought, "What is the whole thing with the polar bears and the ice caps. What does that have to do with the fact that in my community people are being murdered every day?" It was kind of a messaging massacre as it related to climate change. Because of the intersection of climate change and all these issues that we face every day, whether it's education issues, criminal justice issues, it impacts everything because the environment impacts everything. We really had to kind of reframe it so that in the hearts and minds of communities it actually resonated as something that we were interdependent on in terms of the environment and working to preserve it.

DV: Can you describe to me your recent work?

JP: Our focal campaign is around coal-fired power plants. It's the 'clean them up or shut them down' kind of message. We recognize that in order to actually eliminate the harm that coal-fired power plants pose to both communities and the environment, we have to shut them down. We also recognize that some communities are so dependent on coal-fired power plants for their existence, they're so enmeshed in some communities, that the best that we can really hope for is to work with the communities to reduce the pollution they put out. We are working on protection and defense of the Clean Air Act and helping with the creation and passage and implementation of some of the rule-making under the Clean Air Act. Last year we worked on the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard. This year we worked on the Carbon Pollution Standard. And that's really working at the intersection of what's traditionally called environmental justice and climate justice. And particularly with coal-fired power plants, we see them as directly harming the health, the property value and the general, overall well-being of the communities that are host to them, which are disproportionately communities of color. But then at the same time, they are the number one contributor of carbon dioxide, which then drives climate change, which then comes back and harms these communities disproportionately.

DV: What about energy efficiency?

JP: Our second objective is to increase energy efficiency and clean energy. Particularly when we have the first objective of shutting down coal-fired power plants, we have to not be myopically just trying to eliminate the bad but have some feasible ways to replace it with the good so that we can reduce the harmful fossil fuel-based energy production. We want to make sure there are energy efficiency standards throughout the country, there are renewable portfolio standards. And we are helping through our branch infrastructure to develop and implement both some demonstration projects, entrepreneurial-type projects around clean energy and energy efficiency as well as community economic development projects, so community-owned utilities and that kind of thing.

DV: Can you talk a little about climate action planning?

JP: After Hurricane Katrina a lot of the issues were people not being able to get out, so a climate action plan would include more around transportation equity and availability. And also some of the climate action planning is adaptation for the coming of climate change as well as organizing communities so they themselves don't drive climate change. So having more public transportation and infrastructure not only provides a route if they need to get out but also reduces our carbon footprint because we have cooperative, collective ways of moving people as opposed to individual cars. That's one example. Similarly, with food justice, having local economies and local food movements reduces our dependence on having to have more expensive food that may be less available because of climate change, having to get it from other places, because we're creating it locally. But then it also reduces the advancement of climate change because you are reducing that transportation of food that drives climate change because of that whole movement piece. And then it's really for us also about disaster planning. We're actually just about to sign a memorandum of agreement with FEMA. We're about to work with them on having an employee from FEMA be embedded in our headquarters for six months so we can develop disaster plans at headquarters and in our state. So all of that is part of climate action planning.

DV: Green jobs have been touted as a way to help the inner city. According to a study from the Apollo Alliance, the Initiative for a Competitive City, and Green for All, inner-city green jobs grew 10 times as fast as other jobs in the last decade. From your experience, do you find that people from the inner city are aware of green job opportunities? What are some barriers to employment?

JP: There are definitely those growing opportunities but getting the information out there, getting the people into the program and getting it more widely available are some of the things we're trying to work on.

DV: What is the best way to get renewable energy to low-income communities? Can complex financing mechanisms work or is the best way to do so through broader legislation that affects all communities, like renewable portfolio standards?

JP: We are working on the renewable portfolio standards and the energy efficiency standards on one side. We are also working with people on the entrepreneurial standpoint starting up projects. So we are in conversation with a couple of social investors. I actually have a talk that I am giving to a group of social investors in September. We are trying to get more folks to do social investing around these kind of things. So that's definitely one side of it. But we also want to make sure that different states do have the subsidies and the incentives available so that it's more of a state-level policy as opposed to relying on the market and capital investments only. So we're really kind of working both sides of the process to try to get that going.

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