On Aug. 28, the world will pause to recognize Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s monumental “I Have a Dream” speech. Nearly 53 years ago, Dr. King stood on the majestic steps of the Lincoln Memorial and imagined the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution as a blank check. Signed by the country’s founders, it promised equal rights for all. But for African Americans—long denied voting and civil rights—the promise went unfulfilled.
The check, Dr. King said, was bad.
Since then, America has taken many steps to make good on the promise of equal rights for African Americans.But as we continue that work, we must not forget that equal protection also includes something even more basic than voting or civil rights: the very air we breathe.
Power plant pollution dirties our air and contributes to thousands of asthma attacks, hospital visits, and premature deaths every year—all of which affect African American communities at disproportionate rates.This pollution also fuels climate change, causing sea levels to rise and contributing to more frequent—and more violent—extreme weather like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.
Here in Baltimore, thanks to climate change, flooding has become routine and heatwaves more deadly. In 2011, there were 34 heat-related deaths in Maryland: nearly 20 in Baltimore County alone. Without climate action, these impacts will only get worse.
For many Black Americans, breathing heavily polluted air is inescapable. In fact, 68 percent African Americans live within 30 miles of a polluting coal-fired power plant. It’s almost like smokestacks line the horizon of black communities like streetlights do in others.
The health effects are stark. African American children are 4 times more likely to be hospitalized for asthma than Ehite children and 7 times more likely to die from it. African Americans are at heightened risk of heat-related death, which will only become worse as record-breaking temperatures and smoggy skies become the new normal due to climate change.
It’s clear. There should be clean air for all. And today, there isn’t. That’s unacceptable.
The solution is just as clear. We need the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Clean Power Plan.
Finalized more than one year ago, on Aug. 3 2015, the lifesaving standards in the Clean Power Plan set the first ever-federal limits on carbon pollution from power plants, which are the single largest source of carbon pollution in the U.S. The Clean Power Plan also encourages clean energy investment. Simply put, it’s the best tool readily available for the U.S. to combat climate change. And beyond being good for the environment, it’s good for our health and our pocketbooks. By 2030, the Clean Power Plan will generate $54 billion in annual climate and health benefits, including preventing 3,600 deaths and 90,000 asthma attacks in children every year.
Importantly, EPA designed the Clean Power Plan to ensure that communities of color aren’t “redlined” out of the benefits. The Clean Energy and Investment Program (CEIP), part of the Clean Power Plan, can help states reduce carbon pollution even faster by incentivizing job-creating investments in clean energy and energy efficiency in low-income communities. It’s an important component of a vital policy.
Sadly, legacy utilities and their political allies have fought these lifesaving standards at every turn. They’ve sued, with taxpayer dollars, to stop them. And they’ve run a smear campaign, to claim the rules will cost families.
They’re wrong. The Clean Power Plan, based on a strong scientific and legal foundation, will actually lower electricity bills. In fact, when states implement strong energy efficiency measures as part of their compliance, households can save $17 per month on their electric bills by 2030. That’s more than $200 per year.
In truth, polluters are trotting out erroneous lawsuits and tired arguments for one reason: to protect their profits over the health of our communities and families. We cannot allow them to succeed. For these polluters, it’s about quarterly revenue and annual bonuses. For us, it’s about the air we breathe. The air our kids breathe.
Dr. King said, “We’ve come…to cash a check.” I write today to do the same. As our forbearers demanded justice for all, we must demand clean air for all. We must demand our elected officials join the fight by supporting policies like the Clean Power Plan. The cost of pollution and climate change is too high. “Insufficient funds” just won’t do.
The Rev. Dr. Lester A. McCorn is the senior pastor at the Pennsylvania Avenue AME Zion Church in Baltimore, Md.