I think about climate change in three parts: the causes, the effects, and the response to it all. There are themes that cut across all those, and civil rights is one of them. That’s why the House Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Subcommittee convened Wednesday to assess the oil industry’s role in fueling the climate denial machine we see preventing effective action to tackle the climate crisis today.
This hearing is especially timely given that Exxon is on trial in New York and other major cases against Big Oil are moving forward. Unfortunately, not everyone understands the connection between climate change and civil rights.
“I’m puzzled a little bit as to why the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Subcommittee was chosen for this topic,” Republican Representative Chip Roy of Texas said in his opening remarks. “We have a subcommittee on the environment. I think that might be a more natural place for it.”
But by the end of the hearing, witnesses made quite clear why this particular subcommittee was talking about climate change and the oil industry’s efforts to suppress climate science. The climate crisis will affect us all. That doesn’t mean we’ll all feel the impacts the same, though. Plain and simple, climate change does and will continue to disproportionately impact communities of color and low-income communities.
Let’s start with the main drivers of climate change: fossil fuels. They not only spew greenhouse gases, but other forms of pollution when they’re extracted and burned. Several studies have found that the people most exposed to dirty energy pollution are people of color and the low-income. What’s more, a study published earlier this year found that the pollution black and Latinx people breathe is often driven by consumption patterns of white people.
“Environmental justice communities have often had to deal with a double whammy of fossil fuel pollution that comes from facilities like those owned and operated by Exxon and others,” Mustafa Santiago Ali, former environmental justice chair at the Environmental Protection Agency, said during his testimony before the subcommittee. “They have to deal with the immediate impacts of exposures to the burning of fossil fuels and to the warming of the oceans and our planet, which contributes to the increases in hurricanes, floods, droughts, and wildfires, just to name a few.”
The effects of climate change—such as the worsening natural disasters Ali names—also hit these communities hardest. We saw that with Hurricane Katrina nearly 15 years ago. We saw that again, more recently, when Hurricane Maria decimated Puerto Rico. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez brought up both deadly disasters during the hearing, reminding her colleagues that lives have been lost due to the delay in climate action—and the oil industry must be held accountable for its role. She also noted that the U.S. history of colonization, segregation, and systemic racism has also helped create these inequities we see.
“I think it’s important that we put into context here the difference between an electricity bill and people’s lives,” Ocasio-Cortez said as she asked Ali on the impacts on vulnerable communities during the hearing. “My own grandfather died in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, and we can’t act as though the inertia and history of colonization doesn’t play a role in this.”
AOC mentioned electricity bills because the representatives on the other side of the fence here—y’know, the Republicans—kept echoing the same argument: Actions such as punishing fossil fuel companies, ending the use of fossil fuels, or switching to renewables will disproportionately hurt the black, brown, and the poor because it’ll drive up their energy bills. The GOP uses this argument to push the idea that solving climate change will hurt these communities more so than taking action to stop the crisis.
The reality is a lot more complicated, and it’ll depend largely on the policies elected officials put forth to prevent already-overburdened communities from taking on any more burden. First off, if energy bills do go up—and that’s if—during a shift toward renewables, that increase would likely be temporary. And if that happens, households would be affected only if officials fail to create and pass policies to offer them and the renewable energy sector financial assistance during the shift.
And AOC makes a salient point: Even if anyone’s bill goes up, that’s nothing compared to the cost of deteriorating health or worse. If left with the choice between expensive bills or life, I’m certain most—if not all—would opt for the latter. But, really, they shouldn’t be given that choice in the first place.
Addressing the climate crisis needs to happen with attention to frontline communities. They can’t get left behind when leaders finally begin taking effective action to address climate change. Perhaps that’s in the form of fining companies like Exxon to compensate communities destroyed by natural disasters or lawsuits like the ones in Baltimore, counties in Colorado, and elsewhere where oil companies are being sued for climate change-related damages. Maybe the government decides to offer subsidies to wind and solar companies so that the cost of their energy doesn’t skyrocket during the transition away from fossil fuels. Equitable policies can happen, but only if more open, honest discussions like the one at least some members of the subcommittee had Wednesday happen.
Representative Roy sure didn’t know a damn thing when he walked into that room. To be honest, I don’t know that he left the room with any more understanding of why race and class matter when discussing the oil industry. That’s what happens though when the oil and gas industry is a top industry donor to someone’s re-election campaign. And that’s why the public needs to finally begin holding the industry and elected officials accountable.