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Why People of Color Should Care about the Keystone Pipeline

Superstorms. Devastating drought. Out-of-control wildfires. Record-breaking temperatures. There’s no doubt about it: climate change has become impossible to ignore. And while it’s encouraging to see more and more Americans join the call for bold action on climate, there’s one issue that we still hear far too little about: the impact of global warming on low-income communities and people of color.

Hurricane Katrina taught us a lesson—and Superstorm Sandy reinforced it.  People living in neighborhoods with the fewest resources have a harder time escaping, surviving, and recovering from disasters. And they’re more vulnerable to the extreme weather climate change will bring. For example, African-Americans living in Los Angeles are more than twice as likely to die during a heat wave than other residents of the city. That’s because cities develop “heat islands,” which are created by an abundance of concrete and asphalt. Urban areas prone to the heat-island effect are more densely populated by people of color—and folks living in these areas tend to have limited access to cars and air conditioning.

Meanwhile, communities of color have been suffering the health effects of climate change pollution for far too long. Sixty-eight percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal plant—one of the biggest sources of carbon pollution in America. That might help explain why African American kids have a much higher rate of asthma—one in six, compared with one in ten nationwide.

So when America is faced with a decision, as we are now, about whether to accelerate climate change or to fight it with all we’ve got—it’s much more than an environmental issue. It’s a public health and human rights issue.  

That’s why the Keystone XL pipeline is such a major concern. The oil it would carry is the dirtiest on earth—creating three times as much carbon pollution as regular oil. It’s steroids for climate change.  

And it gets worse. Mining tar sands oil wipes out huge swaths of forest, destroying the planet’s natural ability to fight global warming. The extraction process kills wildlife and leaves behind pools of poisoned water and sludge. High levels of arsenic, mercury, and lead have been found at Canadian tar sands sites. It’s not surprising then, that the indigenous tribes who live near these operations have spoken out about staggeringly high rates of cancer and illness in their communities.  


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Here in America, the toxic oil carried by the pipeline would end up in Port Arthur, Texas—a predominantly black and Latino neighborhood that is already plagued by pollution-related health problems. The massive number of oil refineries in the area are blamed for the fact that residents there have a 50 percent higher chance of contracting leukemia. And the Keystone pipeline would add millions of barrels of dirty tar sands crude to the toxic mix.

To permit the pipeline would represent a heartbreaking acquiescence to climate change on the part of President Obama and our national leaders. It would be throwing our hands up helplessly in the face of one of the biggest threats our country has ever faced. That’s not the kind of leadership we voted for.

There are certain points in history, like the Civil Rights Movement, when the consequences of inaction are so great that we have to make bold choices. This is one of those times.

Instead of allowing dirty energy projects like Keystone to move forward, we should be redoubling our investments in clean energy and in the kind of infrastructure that will make communities more resilient to the effects of climate change. Doing so not only builds stronger communities, but has the added benefit of creating economic opportunity capable of lifting people out of poverty. These investments create good, healthy jobs—jobs that can’t be shipped overseas. For example, fixing America’s crumbling water infrastructure alone would put roughly 2 million people to work—while helping manage floods and heat waves.

We’re making a mistake if we treat dirty energy projects like the Keystone pipeline as an environmental issue that’s a concern only to folks who have the luxury of worrying about such things. The pipeline—and climate change—pose an enormous threat to the health and safety of our most vulnerable communities. And we have a moral obligation to stand up and fight.

Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins

Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins is the Chief Executive Officer of Green For All.

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