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OPINION

Our racist fossil fuel energy system

The fossil fuel economy is killing Black Americans.

The FirstEnergy Corp. Bruce Mansfield coal-fired power plant in Shippingport, Pennsylvania.
The FirstEnergy Corp. Bruce Mansfield coal-fired power plant in Shippingport, Pennsylvania.Justin Merriman/Bloomberg

Correction: An earlier version of this column mischaracterized Chevron’s affiliation with a public relations campaign.

American society is rife with racial inequities. Black people are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police and five times more likely to be incarcerated than whites. But it’s not just the US criminal justice system that’s a problem: Our fossil fuel energy system is fundamentally racist.

If you want to run a society on fossil fuels, you’re going to need sacrifice zones — places where the air is thick with pollution and where climate impacts can be ignored.

The last time someone counted, 68 percent of Black Americans lived within 30 miles of a coal-fired plant. Many of these facilities, particularly across the South, are more expensive to run than is clean energy. Yet utilities like Southern Company keep their super polluting, uneconomic coal-fired plants open, no matter the costs for Black communities, simply because it’s in their financial interest.

These decisions shorten Black lives. Research shows that white communities are exporting their pollution into Black backyards. As a result, Black children have asthma rates that are twice as high as white children. We’ve seen the consequences of this pollution burden in stark terms during the COVID-19 pandemic — it’s a key contributor to Black Americans’ higher death rate.

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The more scientists look, the more evidence they find: Our fossil fuel economy is killing Black Americans every day. New research shows that pregnant Black women are twice as likely to have stillborn babies than white mothers because of their unequal exposure to air pollution and heat waves.

Climate change is already hitting Black communities the hardest. As we recently wrote in a report for Stacey Abrams’s think tank, Southern Economic Advancement Project, communities across the Southeast are on the front lines of flooding, sea-level rise, hurricanes, and heat waves.

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The scientific evidence is overwhelming: Pollution, climate impacts, and police violence all fall hardest on Black communities.

But scientific facts have never stopped fossil fuel companies from denying the truth. Faced with increasing attention on racial justice, one fossil fuel company decided once again to lie to the public.

As one report revealed, a PR campaign with Chevron’s name on it responded to the growing movement for racial justice by claiming, “White environmentalists are hurting black communities by pushing radical climate policies that would strip them of fossil fuel jobs.” They advanced a false argument that addressing our fossil fuel pollution would “bring particular harm to minority communities.” (A spokesperson for Chevron says the company did not have any involvement in the PR campaign and did not fund it directly or indirectly.)

As Harvard professor Naomi Oreskes responded: “There’s no socially acceptable language to describe how despicable this is.”

In California, another fossil fuel company tried to take advantage of the fight for racial injustice to protect dirty energy. As Emily Atkin reported, a marketing firm linked to SoCalGas circulated fake reports that the NAACP opposed a plan for clean energy. This is the exact same tactic that fossil fuel companies used to try to block federal climate policy back in 2009.

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Make no mistake: Fossil fuel companies need to tell lies about the costs that their dirty infrastructure imposes on Black communities. Because if we understood the truth, and if we valued Black lives, there will be nowhere for the fossil fuel plants to go.

And that wouldn’t just be a good thing for Black communities. It would also help Indigenous peoples, Latinx communities, and white Americans too.

This is because the Movement for Black Lives is part of a long tradition of protecting all lives on this planet. At the first Earth Day in 1970, Wilbur Thomas, a Black environmental justice leader, spoke out about the racist policies driving pollution into Black communities. Today, support for climate action is higher among Black Americans, who are also more supportive of a Green New Deal.

Ending the fossil fuel era would save Black lives. And it would also save Americans from all walks of life who are sick of breathing dirty air, fleeing wildfires, and hunkering down for the latest hurricane.

It’s time to face facts. If Americans are sincere that Black lives matter, the fossil fuel era must end.

Just as we cannot accept a world where Black Americans’ final words at the hands of the police are “I can’t breathe,” we cannot accept a world where our fossil fuel dependence poisons Black communities, so that every day across our country, Black Americans can’t breathe.

Nikayla Jefferson is a member of the Sunrise Movement in San Diego. Leah C. Stokes is an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of “Short Circuiting Policy.”

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