Coal is Racist?

By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

If Santa Claus decides you’ve been naughty this year and brings you coal for Christmas, don’t put up with it. Call Santa a racist.

The NAACP has decided to change from being the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to the National Association Advocating Coal Policy. According to a study by the NAACP, coal is racist. Not just because it could be used for black face. Rather, coal hates African Americans.

The study, titled Coal Blooded: Putting Profits Before People, claims coal-burning power plants are the end of the world, and minorities will be hardest hit. They studied 378 coal-burning plants to evaluate each plant “in terms of its environmental justice performance (EJP), i.e., how it affects low-income communities and communities of color.”

The EJP score was determined by “five factors: SO2 and NOX emissions; the total population living within three miles of the plant(s); and the median income and percentage of people of color among the total population living within three miles of the plant(s).”

Among the racial effects of coal is the amount of CO2 gas emissions, theoretically contributing to anthropogenic global warming. Global warming, according to the study, is responsible for racist hurricanes and tornadoes.

“Indeed, Hurricane Katrina and the tornadoes in Pratt City, AL have already vividly demonstrated that the shifts in weather patterns caused by climate change disproportionately affect African Americans and other communities of color in the United States — which is a particularly bitter irony, given that the average African American household emits 20 percent less CO2 per year than the average white American household. The six states with the largest proportion of African-Americans are all in the
Atlantic hurricane zone, and all are expected to experience more severe storms as a consequence of global warming.”

So when the average white suburbanite decides he’s going to watch the football game on Sunday on his giant screen television with full surround sound, he’s doing so at the peril of his African American neighbors.

If, as is likely, our racist white suburbanite happens to live in a developed modern country inside the “Global North,” he and his fellow citizens have the extra burden of a heritage of CO2 emissions that began before the developing nations of the “Global South” could industrialize.

“Climate justice activists refer to this historic inequality among carbon emissions as ‘ecological debt’ or ’emissions debt’–a debt of increased economic capacity and wealth that ‘industrialized nations… owe the rest of the world as a result of their appropriation of the planet’s capacity to absorb greenhouse gases.'”

Each country is allocated a certain amount of “atmospheric space” to absorb greenhouse gasses. The “Global North” countries have already used theirs. The study’s authors suggest that the “Global North” make up for this history of racist economic development by paying reparations.

“Reparations for this debt, in order to reflect the North’s historic and present excessive contributions to climate change, should be in the form of deep domestic emission cuts, so as to return to the South its fair share of atmospheric space, as well as providing the South with the necessary technology and financing for adaptation and mitigation.”

If it wasn’t racist to do so, I might suggest everyone in the United States, Canada and Europe should turn on solar powered fans to blow some “space” to the developing countries.

But instead of turning on the fans, the NAACP and the study’s authors have a more radical proposal in mind. They just want to turn the power off.

“Closing the 75 ‘failing plants’ highlighted in this report would reduce U.S. power production by only 8 percent. This amount could easily be substituted by increased energy conservation and renewable energy production. The measures taken to increase energy conservation and renewable energy production include tax credits and financing for weatherization and supporting low income housing and homeowners to invest in renewable energy for their homes, water heating systems heated through geothermal, energy assessments on schools and homes, communities and instituting renewable portfolio standards to support scaling up utilization of renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and geothermal, etc.”

What the authors of the study fail to appreciate, or perhaps choose to ignore, is the disparate impact their own policy prescriptions would have on minorities. Energy costs take a larger percentage of the budget for lower-income households.

A study by energy economist Eugene Trisko, “Energy Cost Impacts on American Families,” said that families with gross incomes less than $50,000 are expected to spend 21% of their average after-tax income on energy costs. For families with gross incomes more than $50,000, the percentage drops to 8.9% of after-tax income.

“In 2010, 62% of Hispanic households and 68% of Black households had average annual incomes below $50,000, compared with 46% of white households and 39% of Asian households. Due to these income inequalities, the burdens of energy price increases are imposed disproportionately on Black and Hispanic households.”

Shutting down coal-burning power plants like the WE Energies facility in the Menomonee Valley and replacing them with alternative forms of energy will only increase energy costs. The study’s authors would claim that increased energy conservation programs would offset the costs, but as we’ve seen in Wisconsin those programs too are paid for by rate increases and would fall disproportionately on the NAACP’s constituents.

Already, environmentalist pressures supported by the study’s authors would lead to new regulations on emissions that could result in 1.6 million jobs being lost, according to the National Economic Research Associates (NERA). Those losses could fall disproportionately on Wisconsin residents since coal-based plants generated 63% of Wisconsin electricity in 2011.

The NAACP study misses an even larger point. Coal power has helped fuel the transformation of the American economy from a farm-based economy to a developed one. Coal power is now doing the same for the developing world, especially India and China.

As Freeman Dyson said in an interview with the New York Times, “the move of the populations of China and India from poverty to middle-class prosperity should be the great historic achievement of the century. Without coal it cannot happen.”

Instead, the authors would rather combine environmentalism, global economic redistribution plans and racial politics to advance an agenda designed, in the words of the authors, “…for philanthropy to offer opportunities for investing resources that will both support local communities’ struggling to better their living conditions while also advancing environmental grant makers’ most important goals of protecting human health and the environment and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

While it’s good that they’re being honest about searching for more checks so they can continue with their activism, they are not truly serving the minority population whose best interests they claim to represent.