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Environmental Justice and Energy Efficiency

3 years ago | May 10, 2016
By: Chris Carey
Discussions of climate change often focus on the future. Politicians and scientists alike use 'future generations' to persuade skeptics and convince people to support actions that reduce carbon emissions. While rising temperatures will undoubtedly have ramifications for our children and grandchildren, a long-term environmental focus ignores the ways in which certain groups are already suffering the consequences of climate change. In this post, I want to highlight one particular way in which low-income communities are already experiencing climate change and then connect this issue to a concern for environmental justice.
The Earth is getting warmer as a result of human-induced activities. This is the consensus of thousands of peer-reviewed climate scientists, and is confirmed by recent data on trends in global weather patterns. 2015 was also the hottest year in the history of recorded weather (dating back to 1880). The graph below from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration illustrates this trend:

A consequence of rising annual temperatures is a subsequent rise of temperatures during the summer months. In other words, summers are getting hotter and are going to keep getting a lot hotter. Warmer summers temperature also influence energy use.  Studies have found that the hottest summer days correspond with spikes in energy demand and air conditioner use in the United States. Some even find a direct link between climate change and increased air conditioner use. The result is higher monthly electricity bills for consumers because they use more electricity to cool their homes. For many, higher electric bills will be a minor adjustment; however, lower-income individuals or those on a fixed income will be forced to choose between suffering through the heat or foregoing other necessities.
Lower-income individuals, on average, spend a greater percentage of their monthly income on energy compared to all other households. Increased energy bills disproportionately impact those least equipped to adjust to fluctuating prices. Even small increases in monthly bills could prevent people from being able to pay other bills, have enough to eat, or pay rent. Given that these conditions will continue to worsen, the U.S. needs policies that address the consequences of climate change. One reason that low-income energy bills are higher is that the infrastructure (pipes, insulation, heating and cooling systems, light fixtures, etc) in those households are inefficient, old, and in desperate need of repair. This results in some households paying more than others for using the same amount of electricity.

A report released last month from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy highlights the severity of this problem. The Council analyzed data from households in major metropolitan areas across the United States and found that low-income households pay more for energy than average households. The report also listed statistics for the least-energy efficient cities. One of those metro areas is Kansas City, Missouri. The chart below displays where KC ranks in different categories of energy burdens (the ratio of energy expenditures to household income):   


This data demonstrates that Kansas City low-income, African American, and Latino households pay a higher proportion of their monthly income on energy compared to all other households. The ACEEE report also includes a list of potential solutions to this problem. These include programs like bill assistance, which provides funding to help people pay their energy bills. They also include weatherization programs  which fund repairs and energy efficiency upgrades in low-income housing. These upgrades can include anything from changing windows or installing new insulation, to updating a home's lighting and heating units. The Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan also includes incentives for energy efficiency projects that states can utilize to provide assistance to low-income households. All of these projects need more state and federal funding, and require cooperation with public utilities. Additional funding could help scale-up these programs and allow them to reach a larger number of households.

Energy efficiency projects yield enormous benefits. Projects  lower energy bills and provide more disposable income for low-income households, which reduces poverty, stimulates local economies, and increases economic development. It can make people resilient to price increases in the summer months (ACEEE report, p. 30),  help utilities comply with environmental regulations, and reduce the amount of energy people consume. These benefits make efficiency investments an ideal remedy to a burden placed on lower-income individuals as a result of climate change.

It is important to note that energy inefficiency in low-income housing is not the only way in which certain groups disproportionately bear the burdens of climate change. People of color are more likely to live near coal plants linked to increased rates of asthma and severe health problems.  Sixty-eight percent of African Americans in the United States live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant, the minimum distance at which experts say people are safe from potential health problems. They are more likely to die during heat waves due to the heat island effect and are more likely to be impacted by sea level rise . These are just a few examples of the uneven consequences of rising temperatures.

Solutions for these problems should not be partisan or controversial. Nor should politicians or activists advocate policies which seek only to address the long-term effects of climate change. For millions of Americans, climate change is a current reality. The disproportionate energy burden described above is a quintessential example of how rising temperatures already affect low-income individuals. This is an environmental justice issue. All Americans do not currently pay the same for using the same amount of energy, and all Americans will not experience climate change equally. It is time we did something to change that by adequately funding energy efficiency projects for low-income households.


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