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Environmental injustice en Español

By Rev. Sam Rodriguez
web posted October 11, 2010

Nineteen Latino activist groups recently asked Congress and President Obama to oppose any attempts to delay or scale back proposed Environmental Protection Agency air pollution and climate regulations.

The groups' letter cites EPA claims that "rising temperatures caused by human activities" would lead to higher levels of ground-level ozone, the main ingredient in smog. This they assert, again citing EPA claims, would lead to health problems in cities with large Hispanic populations, because low-income and minority communities are often less able to pay costs associated with heat-related health threats.

Therefore, they argue, any legislation that affects the proposed Clean Air Act initiatives "will severely jeopardize" public health and productivity in our communities. These initiatives are needed to ensure "environmental justice" and avoid "disproportionate impacts" from climate change in minority communities, by emphasizing renewable energy, better weatherization and "green jobs."

My organization, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, represents over 25,000 congregations and 16 million Hispanic Evangelical Christians. We were not consulted or asked to sign the letter. If we had been, we would have offered some very different insights and perspectives.

First, the legislative actions alluded to in the letter result from Congress's failure to enact climate change, cap-and-trade and energy legislation. The House of Representatives did pass a complex, partisan, thousand-page monstrosity that no one read before legislators narrowly approved it. A similar bill died in the Senate, as the public began to rebel over its scope, growing scientific questions about "dangerous global warming," and previous hurried votes on unread stimulus and healthcare bills whose hidden costs and regulatory landmines became apparent only after President Obama signed them into law.

EPA intends to use the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon dioxide – and thus major energy users, CO2 emission sources and huge sectors of the American economy – in the absence of congressional action, based on its assertion that this vital plant-fertilizing gas somehow "endangers human health and welfare."

Many members of Congress, many states and numerous citizens are loath to give a single federal agency such vast powers. They insist that any such decision must be debated fully and openly, subjected to high standards of scientific evidence – and read carefully by lawmakers and voters, prior to any vote.

Second, many of the assertions made in the Latino activists' letter and EPA documents are questionable, convoluted or based on a deplorable lack of understanding of energy, health and economic realities.

Yes, poor families, including many Hispanics, find it hard to pay for healthcare, including heat-related problems. However, driving up the cost of energy (and thus the cost of literally everything we eat, make, drive and do), impairing job creation and retention, and virtually ensuring brownouts and blackouts in the midst of heat waves and cold snaps, would undermine the very health, economic and environmental justice goals the Latino groups claim to champion.

Global warming could arguably increase summer temperatures and heat waves. However, heat-related health problems would become far worse if families cannot afford air conditioning, or wind-generation makes their electricity as unreliable as in many Third World countries. Those conditions would make even a 0.01 degree rise in average global temperature deadly.

Moreover, far more people die during the winter, especially when they cannot afford adequate heat. For millions of Hispanic and other minority families that live in our northern states, this would become a serious health threat, because the proposed EPA rules would dramatically increase heating costs. Worse, they would do so for little health or environmental benefit, because automobile, factory and power plant emissions have already been reduced way below 1970 levels – and most mercury emissions and microscopic soot now come from volcanoes, forest fires and overseas sources.

Although atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have been rising steadily, even scientists who worry about "dangerous" warming now acknowledge that there has been no warming since 1995. This undermines EPA's claim that carbon emissions pose a health threat. And even if the United States eliminated nearly all its CO2 emissions, global levels would continue to rise, because China, India and other emerging economic powerhouses are using far more coal and oil energy.

Indeed, EPA itself admitted in a June 3, 2010 Federal Register notice that regulating emissions from US cars and trucks would reduce average global temperatures by an undetectable 0.002 degrees by 2100. The agency also admits that regulating factories, power plants, cement kilns, and large office and apartment buildings under its onerous global warming rules and permitting requirements would "slow construction nationwide for years" and cause "adverse impacts" on US economic development.

In other words, EPA's new rules might result in jobs and "cash for caulkers," perhaps with much of the funding channeled from taxpayers through the Latino groups that wrote the letter. But the rules would cost millions of factory, construction and other jobs – for little or no environmental benefit.

Official US unemployment remains mired at 9.6 percent. That's the 14th consecutive month it's been over 9.5% – the worst streak since the Great Depression. EPA's rules would only make this worse.

One of the groups signing the letter claims Latino voters are willing to pay more to protect the environment. Are Hispanics really that eco-conscious? A 2009 Wilson Research Strategies poll found that 76% of black Americans are unwilling to pay more than $50 more per year for electricity, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A September 2010 Ipsos Public Affairs poll found that half of all Americans are unwilling to pay even $60 more per year in total energy costs.

If only reality were so kind. Studies by the Brookings Institution, Heritage Foundation, Congressional Budget Office and others found that the House-passed climate bill would add $1,500 to $3,000 to the average family's annual energy bill! It would raise electricity rates 90-130% and gasoline prices 60-140% after adjusting for inflation. EPA rules would have similar impacts.

We should not be surprised. Over in Britain, where they have already imposed a host of "green energy" and "climate protection" laws, energy prices are already soaring, 5.5 million households have been driven into "fuel poverty" – and 25,000 more elderly people died during the winter than during the summer.

The fact is, when energy and regulatory compliance costs increase, building construction slows, businesses stop hiring or lay people off, the cost of everything we do soars higher, the vaunted Hispanic entrepreneurial spirit is stifled, and poor people's hopes of achieving the American Dream are thwarted. This is not "environmental justice." This is perverse, unnecessary and unacceptable.

Speaking of polls, a brand new Pew Hispanic Center survey found that Latinos are far less enthusiastic about heading to the polls this November than in 2008. That makes the timing and thrust of this activist letter smell like an effort to energize these reluctant voters and buttress White House and EPA agendas on energy, climate change and a new "green economy."

Weatherproofing homes and improving energy efficiency are generally good things. But if cash for caulkers is the quid for the quo of activist groups promoting government agendas that drive up energy costs and kill jobs, we have a serious problem. For then politicized groups and their leaders profit at expense of those they claim to represent. That is environmental injustice en Español. And it is wrong. ESR

Rev. Sam Rodriguez is president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and co-chair of the Affordable Power Alliance, a humanitarian coalition of civil rights, minority, small business, senior citizen and faith-based organizations that champion access to affordable energy.

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