SACE | Southern Alliance for Clean Energy

Dirty Energy & Climate Change’s Disproportionate Impacts


Statistics show that African Americans, Hispanics and other persons of color struggle with an array of disproportionate impacts – from health to economic to climate vulnerability – directly associated with the dirty energy sources that power the Southeast.

Health Impacts to Low Income Communities and Communities of Color

child_health-impactsStatistics show that African Americans and other persons of color are plagued with an array of health conditions that are directly associated with living in proximity to coal-fired power plants. According to research by Dr. Robert Bullard of Clark Atlanta University, blacks in 19 states and hispanics in 12 are two times more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where air pollution poses the greatest health risks. And, not coincidentally, people of color show a higher rate of respiratory impacts than the general population. In 2002, a report done in conjunction with the Clean Air Task Force showed that 68% of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal plant and that asthma attacks send African Americans to the emergency room three times more frequently than their white counterparts. mercury_fishing_impacts.pngPoor air quality in neighborhoods with coal-fired power plants comes from the various toxic substances released into the air. One of those substances, mercury, is a potent neurotoxin that can cause a variety of health problems from learning disorders to heart attacks, and it tends to have the greatest impact locally.

Research by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) shows that mercury exposure can have even greater impacts on certain groups of recreational and subsistence anglers including: low-income Southeastern white populations; low-income Southeastern African-Americans; low-income women across the country; and Hispanics across the country. Low-income Southeastern African-Americans are particularly at risk, and can lose as many as 12 IQ points due to mercury exposure.

All humans are exposed to the most toxic form of mercury when it accumulates in watersheds and enters our bodies through the fish we eat. Many African Americans are avid fishermen and are more likely to eat what they catch, eat more of it and be less aware of health advisories than their white counterparts.

See below for more information on disproportionate impacts from coal plants:

Energy Consumption and Economic Costs

screen_shot_2011-07-21_at_12.08.17_pm.pngIn addition to disproportionate health impacts to low income and communities of color from dirty energy sources, there are disproportionate economic impacts from high home energy costs. Typically, low-income homeowners live in older homes, making them more vulnerable to rising energy costs, which can result in energy costs of up to 25% of their total income.

High energy costs hit low?income renters especially hard, since tenants pay the energy costs of wasteful buildings and appliances owners have little incentive to pay for improvements if they are not paying the utility bills. In some cases, low income consumers actually help to subsidize efficiency programs for other. For example, in order to receive a rebate on a new, energy-efficient refrigerator, a consumer has to have the money to purchase that new refrigerator in the first place. This upfront cost often serves to “screen out” the poor from participating in such beneficial programs. However, the low-income consumer’s utility payments still provide the resources for utilities to sponsor these programs.

One solution to this inequity is to continue supporting residential energy efficiency programs to help homeowners and renters reduce their consumption in the first place.

Climate Change Impacts

picture_7.pngGlobal warming or climate change may impact everyone, but its impacts will be most especially felt by those who are in poverty stricken communities and are the most vulnerable to global climate change. With access to fewer resources to adapt, communities of color and poor households across the United States will suffer more from the economic and health consequences of climate change than other Americans.

Here in the Southeast the impacts may be even more severe as the four main risk factors associated with climate change include drought, flooding, hurricane force winds, and sea-level rise – all found here in our region. A recent report from Oxfam helps to illustrate why low income and minority populations in the Southeast are particularly at risk: Exposed: Social vulnerability and climate change in the US Southeast.