President Trump’s announcement that he will withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement is reckless and short-sighted. By doing so, he is passing along the burden of environmental stewardship to future generations —including my daughter — that are now responsible for cleaning up the environmental mess we’ve made and continue to make.
Trump demonstrates an appalling lack of vision, ignoring what is economically competitive, innovative and just plain right for what is comfortingly familiar. In my opinion, his motivations originate from the same well of ignorance Southern leaders in the 20th century drew from while fighting for Jim Crow and that Gov. George Wallace displayed when fighting against integration. Although it was bad for business and society, they continued to uphold a system that minimized the ability of the Southern economy to turn toward the future where all people were assets and mattered.
Trump’s decision is detrimental to us all, and most definitely to low-wealth communities and communities of color in the American South. People of color are more likely to breathe bad air and, consequently, are the first to suffer from its effects, with conditions such as asthma, to which African-Americans are three times more susceptible. To understand the effects of sea-level rise in Georgia, just walk around Chatham County to see dying trees and tides that threaten marsh-front property. The lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, made up primarily of low-income African-Americans, is still struggling to rebuild itself, 12 years after Hurricane Katrina caused widespread destruction and suffering.
Is President Trump willing to visit emergency rooms in Atlanta and Birmingham and explain to the Black and Latino communities why coal jobs matter more than their children’s health? Will he visit the flooded areas in the Carolinas and the Gulf Coast and tell the vulnerable populations there that climate control is a bad deal for America?
In his speech last week, Trump relied on debunked reports to say compliance with the climate deal will lead to huge job losses. That could not be further from the truth. Coal isn’t coming back. Cheaper renewable power and natural gas have it beaten soundly in the market, providing cleaner energy at a lower price.
Coal also is uniquely dirty and that pollution disproportionately impacts communities of color. About 68 percent of African-Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant. Hispanics also are 165 percent more likely to live in counties with unhealthy levels of power-plant pollution than non-Latino whites.
Ultimately, pulling out of the Paris Agreement threatens the paychecks and promise generated by the new green economy for the untapped talent in under-resourced communities. By clinging to coal, we risk missing out on the jobs being created by wind, solar and other sustainable businesses. Clean energy supports 3.3 million jobs in the country. Solar alone employs more workers than coal, oil and natural gas combined. Georgia as part of the Sunbelt proudly supports more than 60,000 advanced-energy jobs.
Importantly, renewable energy and energy efficiency provide fresh entrepreneurial opportunities for minority-owned businesses across the South and are a gateway to empowering communities and strengthening their local economy. Institutions like Agnes Scott College are working to minimize carbon emissions while exploring opportunities to engage vulnerable communities around energy equity.
It’s been heartening to see Georgia’s political leaders speak out in opposition to Trump’s move to support the growth of coal. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, along with more than 1,200 mayors, governors and business leaders around the nation, have committed to support climate action to meet the Paris Agreement goals in the absence of federal leadership. As my city of Atlanta marches toward meeting its goal of 100-percent renewable energy by 2035, I do hope Reed will ensure the emerging green economy does not leave behind the same communities our current economy has forgotten and exploited since its inception.
Nathaniel Smith is the founder of Partnership for Southern Equity, an Atlanta-based nonprofit committed to promoting shared prosperity in the American South and empowering vulnerable populations and nonwhite communities ost affected by climate change.