Opinion

Black Americans Care About Climate Change. Why Is No One Talking to Them About It?

In climate discourse, Black voices are rarely amplified. But to make headway in addressing the climate crisis, policymakers must incorporate our views, perspectives and experiences to execute real and equitable climate solutions. Five months ago, Third Way embarked on a qualitative research project to better understand how Black Americans view climate change. Our efforts started well before coronavirus had ripped through the Black community, and before the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks ignited a wave of social justice protests. Our research validates what we’ve always known: Structural inequality is a major barrier preventing communities of color from benefiting equally from climate action.

In a recent Washington Post column, Sarah Kaplan writes that “Racism is ‘inexorably’ linked to climate change … because it dictates who benefits from activities that produce planet-warming gases and who suffer most from the consequences.” Indeed, Black Americans bear an unequal burden from pollution and from climate change. For example, Black communities often make up a significant proportion of those at greatest risk from rising sea levels. And discriminatory housing policies like “redlining” have forced communities of color to live in areas just miles away from industrial polluters, where air quality is significantly compromised, and residents face an elevated risk of cancer, asthma and other respiratory diseases like the novel coronavirus.

In addition to the substantive and moral imperative to include Black Americans in the climate conversation, there’s a political reason as well. As the 2020 Democratic primaries made clear – and the general election will surely underscore – Black voters matter enormously. And Democrats must not make the mistake of viewing those voters as a uniform bloc.

To better understand how Black Americans feel about climate change, Third Way, with assistance from GBAO, held focus groups in Detroit, Mich., Philadelphia, and Greensboro, N.C. In each focus group, we asked questions about climate change, environmental justice, and clean energy. Our research findings are summarized in a new memo offering three practical insights that policymakers, advocates and the media should consider.

First, we found widespread recognition that the climate is changing and that it’s concerning — in concert with research that shows people of color are more likely to be concerned about climate change than Whites. But our participants did not rank climate change as one of their top priorities. Those we spoke with also consistently cited more pressing concerns affecting their daily lives than climate issues, such as health care, racism, and school debt. As one Philadelphia participant said, “I can go worry about global warming and all that, but that’s not going to feed my kids. That’s not going to pay my bills.” 

Second, our research suggests that climate change has a significant visibility problem in Black communities. We heard that there simply are not enough Black voices on climate change. Participants also felt that issues around climate change are only addressed during election cycles, and that no one is talking to them about the issue more regularly. Not only is there a need to deploy the right messengers who can raise the visibility of climate change in Black communities, but policymakers and advocates must commit to sustained, local engagement if the issue is to resonate. 

Third, despite the fact that a majority of Black Americans support a goal to reach a 100 percent clean economy, many participants perceived clean energy resources as out of reach for their communities. The data support this sentiment: Black people constitute 13.4 percent of the U.S. population, yet Black Americans made up only 9.1 percent of the clean energy workforce in 2019. Some of our focus group participants cited a lack of formal training for clean energy jobs as a major barrier; one Detroit participant said he did not see the “educational component” present to train younger people into these new jobs. 

Moreover, though our groups were completed before the racial justice protests, no solution to climate change will be acceptable unless advocates like us incorporate environmental justice into our work. We’re encouraged that House Democrats’ recent proposal to combat climate change integrates racial and environmental justice into their vision for climate policy. 

In further research, the climate world should explore these questions more deeply. How do Black Americans think and feel about specific clean energy policies, what are the best messages and who are the most impactful messengers to engage and activate Black communities on climate? One thing is clear: Policymakers have a long way to go to make climate change not only more relevant to the daily lives of the Black Americans but to ensure that the policies they create are inclusive and equitable and that Black people are helping set the agenda. 

Jared DeWese is Senior Communications Advisor for Third Way’s Climate and Energy Program.

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