With so many people out of work and short of cash because of the coronavirus, Atlanta-area power companies including Georgia Power and Cobb EMC are suspending shut-offs for people who get behind on their bills. It’s the right thing to do.

But in a few weeks or months —when energy costs begin their annual summer spike here in the South — those bills will come due. And meanwhile, the enormous bill for our unjust energy system continues to grow.

Washington’s refusal to take action on clean energy and climate change is ruining our communities and shortening lives, while politically connected power companies spend ratepayers’ money persuading lawmakers from D.C. to Atlanta not to rock the energy boat. This parallels the coronavirus crisis, during which “leaders” who benefit tremendously from business, as usual, waited far too long to act, and left the rest of us to pay the price.

Whether we’re looking at clean energy and climate change in the long term or coronavirus in the short term, the African American community is suffering far more than our fair share of the damage. And, these facts are tied together in a way that reflects how systemic racism perpetuates itself, harming people, communities, and our entire nation.

An astonishing 68 percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant. Leading countries around the world are abandoning this outdated, dirty technology, but it is still generating power — and profits — in places where African Americans live.

Black Americans breathe 38 percent more polluted air than white Americans do, and 71 percent of us live in places that violate clean-air rules. That includes Atlantans, who breathe some of the country’s most hazardous air.

Breathing polluted air increases the risk of lung disease, heart disease, and other chronic ailments like asthma. And because African Americans tend to be paid less and have been locked out of opportunities to build up generational wealth as white Americans have had, we are less able to avoid hazardous environments or access consistent, quality medical care.

Throw in the fact that underlying lung and heart disease and other preexisting health problems are risk factors for COVID-19, and it’s no wonder that in cities across the country, Black Americans account for a wildly disproportionate number of people dying from the novel coronavirus.

So where do we go from here?

In the short term, the Partnership for Southern Equity and 830 energy justice, environmental, faith, civil rights and labor groups from across the country are calling on Congress to pass a nationwide moratorium on shutting off electricity and other critical services, including water and broadband. As a matter of human rights and public health, people need electricity, clean water, and communications to get through the coronavirus crisis.

But that is only a single step in a long journey.

Here in the South, we bear a disproportionate burden of the negative impacts of climate change and the fossil-fuel-based energy system that causes it. Health impacts from asthma to coronavirus are just the beginning. More severe hurricanes, floods, and droughts; pollution of our air, land, and water; economic instability and educational achievement gaps — all are exacerbated by our changing climate.

Cleaning up our energy system and boosting energy efficiency will help stabilize the climate, curbing the trend toward more severe weather and faster sea-level rise. It will mean cleaner air and healthier people.

But the benefits of the massive ongoing transition to clean energy must flow not just to corporations, but also to communities that have suffered the effects of dirty energy for decades.

Investing in clean energy and efficiency creates good jobs that can’t be outsourced and that offer livable salaries in a fast-growing field. We must ensure that the African American community can access these promising careers and benefit from clean energy sector growth by investing in minority entrepreneurs and the creation of small businesses.

Community-based energy generation from clean sources like the sun and the wind offers healthier neighborhoods, energy-bill savings, and the opportunity to build wealth. Black neighborhoods must have plenty of seats at that table, too.

As the cruel and inequitable fallout from the coronavirus crisis makes clear, the movement for climate and energy justice is more important than ever. The economy may have screeched to a halt for the coronavirus crisis, but climate change hasn’t.

Sure, we are seeing a drop in harmful, greenhouse gas emissions for now. But we need to make sure that when our economy revs up again, it is increasingly powered by clean and efficient energy, and that the benefits flow to the people in a manner that is equitable and just.

Just as African Americans have suffered disproportionately from dirty energy and a changing climate, we can benefit enormously from clean energy and a more stable environment. As lawmakers make plans to reopen our economy, real leaders will keep this firmly in mind and will earn our support.

Chandra Farley is the Just Energy Director for the Partnership for Southern Equity, which advances policies and institutional actions that promote racial equity and shared prosperity for all in the growth of metropolitan Atlanta and the American South.

Chandra Farley

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