PHOENIX, ARIZONA - JULY 16: A person cools off amid searing heat that was forecast to reach 115 degrees Fahrenheit on July 16, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. A heat dome over Texas that has expanded to California, Nevada and Arizona is subjecting millions of Americans to excessive heat warnings, according to the National Weather Service. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Where Black Communities Fit into America’s Energy Transition

Black people bear an unfair share of harm from climate pollution. The United States — and the world — must do better.

When you think of the worst effects of climate change — floods, hurricanes, unbearable heat — it’s easy to think that all that misery would have an equal impact.

But the damaging effects of a warming world are not evenly shared, and that imbalance underscores how climate and history are impossible to disentangle. From the developed world’s disproportionate historical emissions to climate change’s fast-growing effects across the developing world, climate and history are inextricably linked.

In the United States, the legacy of racism and its enduring effects means that Black people are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. As Black History Month comes to a close, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the damage that carbon emissions and fossil fuel pollution has wrought — and is still wreaking — on Black communities.

Geography as destiny

Geography and history both combine to expose Black Americans to outsized climate risks. Today, more than half of Black Americans live in the Southeast due in part to slavery’s historic prevalence but also due to more recent phenomena.

Although nearly six million Black people fled the Jim Crow-era South to the country’s North and West in the early 20th century, not all found freedom. The historic practice of redlining in cities across the country along with other forms of systemic racism has caused a boomerang effect, with Black net migration to the South now higher than any other US region. Even as this movement has revitalized cities such as Dallas and Atlanta — and allowed Black Americans to live in more affordable circumstances — it means that today 56 percent of Black people live in a region more prone to extreme heat, hurricanes, and flooding than any other.

Extreme heat

Due to the legacy of redlining and other methods of racial segregation, Black communities often live in less green, more urbanized environments, contributing to a “heat island” effect that make Black populations 1.4 times more likely than the overall population in the same area to be exposed to extreme heat.

This in turn puts strain on healthcare systems. Between 2005 and 2015, heat-related emergency room visits increased 67 percent for Black people, while the corresponding number for white people grew by less than half that rate.

Flood risks

These neighborhoods are also worse for flooding, a risk which is expected to worsen further as ocean temperatures rise and storms become more severe. In the Southeast, Black residents are more likely to experience a one-in-a-100-year flooding event compared to the wider US population in the same area.

The practice of locating Black communities on or near contaminated land, or brownfield sites (another legacy of redlining) makes flooding a public health risk, as floodwaters push pollutants to the surface and threaten water supplies.

Hurricane dangers

With extreme weather events set to increase as the world warms, Black populations are at increased risk. Black communities in the US southeast are 1.8 more times more likely than the overall population to experience hurricanes

One need look no further than Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005. Of the seven zip codes that incurred the most damage, four of them had Black populations of 75 percent or higher.

Economic impacts

These extreme weather events are devastating in and of themselves, but it’s the long-term effects that can leave deeper scars. A destroyed home means a destroyed chance to build generational wealth, especially when the home was in an area insurance companies won’t touch.

Black workers are already at a disadvantage compared to their white counterparts in terms of pay — the median Black worker makes 21 percent less than the median white worker — but climate change impacts could worsen that gap.

Labor productivity losses due to extreme heat are expected to reach half a trillion dollars per year by 2050. As they represent a higher proportion of low-wage, frontline workers, Black and Hispanic workers are projected to take an 18 percent higher productivity hit over their white counterparts in that time due to reduced working hours and absenteeism.

Where Black communities fit into the energy transition

As a group under the greatest threat of a heating planet, Black communities have much to gain from a just energy transition. An equitable transition could relieve the worst effects of heat, flooding, droughts, hurricanes, energy prices, high insurance rates, and more.

The knock-on effects would be enormous: An America made safer from extreme heat and weather would mean more chances to build Black wealth and for Black people to have greater spending power in our economy. It would also save lives, as the effects of less pollution and a cleaner environment reduce Black mortality.

Ultimately, a just transition would begin with Black communities and other historically marginalized and underrepresented groups. Similar to the calls heard at COP28 from developing nations, these groups bear the least responsibility for centuries of carbon pollution, yet have shouldered their effects for generations. Making sure the energy transition starts with those communities, and not as an afterthought, is crucial to ensuring our clean future does not repeat the mistakes of the past.

Toward Progress

As the world continues to see temperature records broken, it’s difficult to see signs of progress for Black communities. As long as carbon pollution continues as business as usual, black communities will suffer the consequences.

Activist groups, such as Solutions Project, ClimateinColor, and Black Girl Environmentalist, are a source of hope for their refusal to accept a status quo that leaves Black people sick and in danger. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the businesses that create climate pollution to change and to recognize that their bottom lines should include the vulnerable communities they put at risk.

While some policies have recognized the need to include these overlooked communities, more needs to be done. Direct financial support to communities facing the harshest effects of climate change would provide meaningful relief but only if paired with a long-term vision: including stricter regulations and mandates that ensure the “green” solution is equally accessible to all companies and communities.

RMI can serve as the agent of change and a catalyst in bringing about a more just transition for the Black community and others that have been historically overlooked — not just in the United States, but across the world. As Black History Month comes to a close, we are once again reminded that the energy transition must also be an equitable one.

The words of Catherine Coleman Flowers, RMI’s newest board member, should serve as a wake-up call for the work ahead:

“The energy transition can’t be all about profit. That should not be the driving force. It should be about saving the planet and making sure that everybody has access to clean and renewable energy. Because if we don’t do it that way, and it’s just solely about making money, we’re going to have the same problems we’ve always had — a lot of people will be left behind.”