Obama's Climate Plan Must Build for Tomorrow, Address the Needs of Vulnerable Communities Today

Today, President Obama unveiled a nuts-and-bolts plan to respond to climate change. The plan is very good news. In the months since the president's State of the Union promise to act on climate, we've seen more and more Americans devastated by tornadoes, wildfires, and disasters. If the need for decisive action wasn't crystal clear then, it is now.

The plan the president has laid out includes real, effective solutions that will help fight global warming--like setting limits on the amount of carbon pollution power plants can release. These are true gains worth celebrating as an important step toward fulfilling our obligation to leave a healthy planet to future generations. Simultaneously, an effective climate plan must also include measures that will protect Americans who are most vulnerable right now. While the pollution that causes climate change threatens all of us, low-income communities and people of color are hit first and worst.

We saw it with Hurricane Katrina. When a storm strikes, people with the fewest resources have a harder time escaping, surviving, and recovering. In New York, six of the waterfront boroughs most susceptible to the increased storm surges that climate change will bring are predominantly low-income communities of color. And in Los Angeles, African Americans are twice as likely to die in a heat wave, due in large part to neighborhoods dense in concrete with little shade or access to vehicles and air conditioning.

Meanwhile, for too long these same communities have been paying for our fossil fuel economy--with their health. Sixty-eight percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal plant. It's no wonder, then, that one in six of our kids has asthma, compared with one in ten nationwide. And coal pollution takes a devastating toll on all of us--it's responsible for 13,000 premature deaths a year, and costs us $100 billion annually in medical expenses.

So, as the president launches his effort on climate change, one of his first priorities must be to stabilize communities on the front lines. That means building infrastructure that helps absorb the blow of increased storms and disasters. It also means bringing economic opportunity to the hardest-hit neighborhoods.

We will need more infrastructure like the sea gate that protected the city of Samford, Conn., during Superstorm Sandy. But just as important, we will need to make sure it's built by American workers--workers who have been locked out of the old economy. That includes people of color, who are still struggling with staggering unemployment--13.5 percent, almost twice the national average.

The good news is that many of the tools we need to combat carbon pollution can also create jobs and opportunity for folks on the edge. Expanding clean energy will create new jobs--lots of them. A study showed that every dollar invested in clean energy creates three times as many jobs as a dollar invested in oil and coal. Clean energy jobs tend to pay well--13 percent higher than the median wage--while requiring less formal education. That's a recipe for escaping poverty.

Responding to climate change will mean fixing some of our basic infrastructure, like the stormwater systems that help manage flooding. Just making needed repairs to our water infrastructure could create two million jobs. And if we want to maximize the return on investment for taxpayers, we need to make sure Americans who are on the frontlines--of both climate change and economic turmoil--have a shot at these jobs.

We'll also need to weatherize more of our buildings, which account for roughly 40 percent of our carbon pollution. In the process, we'll have a chance to hire local workers. And because materials used for energy efficiency upgrades are by and large made in America, we can give our manufacturing sector a much-needed shot in the arm, too.

President Obama is doing the right thing by standing up to polluters. For our children and grandchildren, we have a moral imperative to respond aggressively to the threat of climate change.

We also have a moral imperative to create a better future for kids who are growing up in poverty--the kids who watch their parents struggle to find work, the kids who are forced to breathe polluted air, the kids who will be first to suffer when a storm hits.

America's response to climate change is an unprecedented opportunity to shift the odds for these kids. By giving their families and neighbors access to good, middle class jobs, we can create true resilience. We can build a stronger, safer, healthier country--for all of us.