Is the Climate Change Bill An Assault on the Poor?

In the opening remarks of his news conference on Tuesday, President Obama mentioned a climate change bill working its way through the House of Representatives, hailing it as "legislation that will finally spark a clean energy transformation that will reduce our dependence on foreign oil and confront the carbon pollution that threatens our planet." One component of the legislation, called the Waxman-Markey bill, requires large utilities to produce more electricity from renewable sources including wind, solar and geothermal power. The President says this will lead to the development of the much-touted green economy, creating millions of new jobs.

But another part of the bill has sparked concern that the government is fighting climate change at the expense of poor and minority communities.

The component in question is the "cap and trade" system, which is designed to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Cap and trade requires industries to get permits from the government for their limited carbon emissions. Most of the permits would be given away for free, while 15 percent would have to be bought from the government.

A portion of the revenue from these permits would go toward reimbursing low- and moderate-income households for increased energy costs. But it is precisely this outcome--higher energy bills for consumers, especially when so many Americans are already struggling to make ends meet--that has critics calling foul.

I took these grievances to Norris McDonald, president of the African American Environmentalist Association, a public interest group dedicated to protecting the environment and increasing Black participation in the green movement. He supports the Waxman-Markey bill because he argues that fighting climate change is in our interest.

"Global warming is worse for African-American communities because we're already disproportionately impacted by too many polluting sites," he said, referring to the widespread practice of locating factories and other polluting industries in communities of color. "Hotter weather and smog is just one more stressor on top of this community."

McDonald continued that the bill needs an international component to be sufficiently effective, but that it's a good start and shows the rest of the world that the United States is serious. But what is fighting climate change going to cost Black communities financially?

McDonald points to recent figures from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which projects that cap and trade would cost the average American household $175 a year, or 48 cents a day, by 2020. "I don't believe that is overly burdensome on low-income people," he said. "Plus, there's a provision in the bill that provides payments to low-income people through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. If they're going to be impacted, there's a provision in there to protect them."

Despite the CBO estimates and relief provided to lower-income households in the Waxman-Markey bill, opponents maintain that raising fuel and utility bills at all is an assault on the poor. In a statement from the Congress of Racial Equality, Chairman Roy Innis said, "Americans don't want 'energy welfare' payments from the government to help ease the sting of these government-driven cost increases. They want continued affordable and reliable energy, which this bill will constrict."

Still, if all goes according to the Democrats' plan, the legislation will pass in the House on Friday. What do you think of the climate change bill?

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