You don’t have to look far to see the devastating effects of climate change. Severe storms that cause dangerous, costly flooding, and power outages are becoming more and more common. Temperatures are climbing, worsening childhood asthma. These impacts are felt even more acutely in cities like Philadelphia that lack trees in many neighborhoods and suffer from the “heat island” effect.
From asthma to extreme heat, low-income communities of color typically bear the brunt of these risks. To tackle both the current and future impacts of climate change, Philadelphia is working on a long-term plan to lower emissions. But it can’t do it alone.
In this particular moment, President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan offers a unique chance to leverage the power of the federal government to fight climate change while creating family-sustaining jobs in communities of color throughout Philadelphia.
Among our region’s most urgent concerns, the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated working families. Business closures and social distancing measures necessary to curtail the spread of the pandemic have caused massive layoffs in the service industries that provide a ladder to the middle class for immigrant families and communities of color.
These essential workers, overwhelmingly of color, are also at greater risk of contracting the virus because they’re not able to work from home. And communities of color more broadly have been at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 and suffering serious complications, while racial and class gaps for vaccination rates persist.
The president’s landmark plan to respond to the threat of climate change will be a game changer for these families. It promises billions of dollars of new investments in cheap, renewable energy, as well as funding to weatherize aging homes — programs that both promise to curb emissions and reduce energy costs for working families. It pledges $85 billion to support struggling transit agencies, like SEPTA, to allow them to rebuild aging power substations and replace ancient trains to improve service for public transit riders. This is crucially important because people of color represent more than 70% of SEPTA riders.
And it will create millions of jobs that can help remediate Pennsylvania’s legacy of industrial pollution, which continues to pose a threat to our health. The need for remediation includes removing every single lead water pipe in Philadelphia that threatens the health and welfare of our children, as well as remediating brownfields (potentially contaminated land) and other contaminated sites that mar our neighborhoods and hamper community revitalization.
Philadelphia’s members of Congress, Reps. Dwight Evans and Brendan Boyle, serve on the House Ways and Means Committee, which will play a crucial role in shepherding this once-in-a-generation proposal through the legislative process in Washington. They are longtime champions of Philadelphia’s working families with a laser focus on community economic development, and we’re looking forward to working with them on ensuring we send the strongest possible bill to President Biden for his signature.
Because of a legacy of systemic racism and exclusion, it is crucial that our community, and others that have been on the front lines of environmental injustice, receive the direct benefits of these investments. At least 40% of the total investments to fight climate change should flow to low- and moderate-income communities and communities of color, as the current plan stipulates.
This means that our neighbors struggling with high heating bills because of leaky windows should see more money for weatherization programs. And that community members must have access to apprenticeship programs in the building trades so they can help build the infrastructure necessary to support electric car charging.
We must also prioritize funding for public transit. This won’t just reduce traffic congestion and vehicle emissions. It will also make it easier for people to get to work, go grocery shopping, and make their doctor’s appointments.
Despite this legislation’s benefits, it faces stiff opposition from powerful corporate interests that benefit from policies that give them license to pollute our neighborhoods.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has pledged to pass this bill out of the House over the summer. To get this done, advocates from across our region must work closely with congressional leaders over the next several months to ensure quick action on legislation that promises to build a fairer 21st-century economy on clean energy.
Thoai Nguyen is CEO of SEAMAAC, an immigrant and refugee rights advocacy organization based in South Philadelphia. Josh McNeil is executive director of Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania.