By Kendrick Meek and Michael Nutter
We all know the responsibility we have as a nation to tackle one of the most important challenges before us: Addressing the impacts of climate change. And even though our communities are on the front lines of this challenge, most solutions leave out the authentic needs and values of the most impacted.
As policymakers look to cut emissions while ensuring Americans can heat their homes, turn their lights on, and charge their cellphones, Black and low-income Americans are already unfairly shouldering the burden of rising energy costs.
We cannot stand by and watch conditions worsen, nor can we leave the actual, immediate needs of our communities behind. All of us have an obligation to ensure that no people are marginalized as we build the clean energy economy of tomorrow.
Investing in more renewables is one part of the answer. But pursuing renewable energy sources alone, without considering the price tag or timeline to expand America’s power grid by 60 percent, will come at the expense of millions of working-class Americans. We must be practical. That’s why natural gas partnered with renewables is the most immediate, affordable, and accessible way forward to protect energy bills and reduce carbon emissions.
We also understand that to some, natural gas may not be the most popular answer. But the alternative would be to continue to haphazardly implement intermittent renewable energy only for those who can afford it, risk unreliable service, and fall back on higher emitting coal and heating oil to keep the lights on when sun or wind power is unavailable.
The reality is that 25 percent of American households are energy-burdened. And like most things, energy insecurity impacts physical health as well as economic well-being, which in turn disproportionately hurts Black and Brown households.
While many have argued that wholesale change to our energy infrastructure is the only solution to address climate change, the facts paint a different picture. Until renewables are built at scale and become more affordable, they will continue to be out of reach for our most vulnerable communities.
Consider the impact of solar power, which supposedly provides significant long-term savings on energy bills. But the average cost of installing solar panels — decidedly more than the median household wealth for Black homeowners or renters — makes this option completely unattainable for low-income families. Even if communities were to increasingly make the switch to solar, they would still need to rely on coal and heating oil for energy in colder, rainier months when the sun doesn’t shine.
Renewables alone are clearly not enough to reach any of our immediate climate and energy goals. We need realistic solutions that will continue to provide energy for all Americans at a reasonable price. Natural gas, championed by civil rights activist Rev. Jesse Jackson and others, presents a low-cost, reliable solution that can partner with renewables as new technologies come online. For Black and Brown communities, it could be life-changing.
Policymakers must focus on improving energy infrastructure for communities of color instead of investing in “solutions” that will consistently leave them behind. It will take years, if not decades, to solve energy inequities. Embracing the use of natural gas could make a sustainable, affordable energy future closer to becoming a reality.
To take advantage of natural gas as an energy solution means to invest in communities of color, foster economic development, and get closer to meeting the energy needs of everyone. And, as we strive for economic and environmental justice, we must ensure that this transition is led by the voices of those who historically have not been heard — Black elected officials, community leaders, families, students, and clergy must all have a seat at the table.
Former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and Congressman Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.) are members of the Natural Allies for a Clean Energy Future Leadership Council.
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