Editor’s Note: Bakari Sellers is a former Democratic member of the South Carolina House of Representatives and a CNN commentator. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
There are significant issues plaguing our nation, however, few carry the long-term impact of climate change. But when it comes to the voices leading this fight, those voices are rarely from the communities that disproportionately bear the burden of climate change, pollution, and our reliance on fossil fuels.
Climate change should be a definitive issue for Black voters, but it isn’t. That is partly because environmental advocacy groups have not always looked like us, nor have they clarified what solutions mean for our communities. And few have articulated what real environmental justice looks like.
So, for any presidential hopeful that is serious about wooing Black voters in the South, take note: we expect a clear plan on how you will safeguard the air we breathe and the water we drink. We expect you to explain how climate change affects us, and how our communities will be spotlighted in response efforts.
The pivotal battleground state of South Carolina offers a dark glimpse into our climate crisis.
According to American Lung Association’s Director of Advocacy, June Deen, “South Carolina residents should be aware that we’re breathing unhealthy air, driven by extreme heat as a result of climate change, placing our health and lives at risk.”
And sadly, the water quality across the state is much worse. Earlier this year, a local South Carolina paper, citing state Department of Health and Environmental Control records, reported that 41 utility companies across the state surpassed federal safety standards for lead in the water. This is alarming, especially given the debilitating affect that even small amounts of lead can have on the developing brains of our children. Even though South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control has expressed a desire to increase the fines against utilities for water quality violations, we’ve not seen the kind of decisive action from state government that would actually deliver clean water to rural communities across the state.
This is personal for me because South Carolina is my home. And for a state that embraces the motto “While I breathe, I hope,” it is understandable why hope for some may seem unreachable when the air our children breathe and the water they drink makes them sick.
And if the fight for clean air and water were not enough, battling the effects of climate change along the South Carolina coastline and incessant offshore drilling continue to worsen matters.
But these grim environmental conditions are not unique to South Carolina. Many communities of color across the rural South can unfortunately relate. Yet, the Trump administration continues to turn back the clock on decades of environmental progress
That is why increasing investments in renewable energy could have a transformative impact on rural communities. Not only will it preserve the health of our children, but clean energy has the power to improve economies and stimulate job growth in rural communities like those throughout South Carolina afflicted by high unemployment.
Fortunately, House Democrats have a plan that puts us on a sustainable path toward a 100% clean energy economy.
The 100% Clean Economy Act of 2019 builds on the progress of the Obama administration and leading states by setting a national goal to achieve a clean energy economy by 2050, and as a result, improving public health and environmental outcomes for rural and low-income households and communities of color.
Fostering support for climate change will require advocates to make the environmental crisis plain in terms that resonate with frontline communities who bear the biggest burden of environmental racism.
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The work we are seeing from United for Climate and Environmental Justice Task Force, grassroots activists like Heather McTeer Toney, and organizations like We Act – all led by people of color – must be central to our efforts to promote voices of color on climate change. And let’s continue to lift up efforts of climate activists and legislators of color and organizations like Denmark Citizens for Safe Water. (I’m a member of the Denmark group.)
Elevating the transformative work of these groups will create an inclusive movement that can help connect the dots on climate change for Black voters.
I urge environmental activists and organizations of color to rally behind a 100% clean energy economy. This is the only way to diversify the politics of climate change and hasten our transition to a fairer and cleaner economy that puts our water, air, and children first.