Global Climate Change and the African American Community (Part 1)
By Norris McDonald
Global warming is a very complex scientific issue. We use global warming and global climate change interchangeably because the basic issue is whether human activity has negatively influenced our atmosphere and climate. U.S. economic health currently outweighs climate concerns attributable to emissions from human activities. Yet, human, animal and plant health are essential to a vibrant economy. As such, an approach to addressing global climate management that will not damage our economy or health is best for the United States and the African American community. We believe that humans cannot continually emit unlimited quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere without consequence.
There is disagreement among scientists about whether there has been a permanent increase in temperature over the past few decades and whether contributions of so called greenhouse gases (GHGs) from human activities are causing changes in our climate. The basic global warming issue revolves around the effects of less than 1% of all atmospheric gases, mostly carbon dioxide and methane. Nitrogen and oxygen comprise 99% the earths atmosphere (Nitrogen--78.1%, Oxygen--20.9%), Argon--0.9%, Neon--0.002%, Helium--0.0005%, Krypton--0.0001%, Hydrogen--0.00005%, Water vapor--0 to 4%, Carbon Dioxide--0.035%, Methane--0.0002%, and Ozone--0.000004%. Are the emissions from human activities significantly changing our atmosphere and climate? If they are increasing the atmospheric temperature, what effects will this have on the African American community? If temperatures are not increasing, what position should the African American community take on climate management policies?
Common sense would seem to conclude that effects from 1% of our atmosphere would not significantly affect the other 99%. Critics of human-induced global warming theory believe that the reason environmentalists, Democratics, liberals and pro-global warming scientists single out carbon dioxide (CO2) is so that they can blame it on mankind and force mandatory regulations on society. Global warming critics and scientists believe that the majority of the small percentage of CO2 and methane in the atmosphere is predominately from insects, animals, volcanoes and decaying plants and not from power plants, factories, vehicles, homes and appliances. Other critics bristle at the notion of carbon dioxide being described as a pollutant. We have carbon dioxide in our bloodstream and exhale it in the breathing process. The trace amounts in the air we breathe do not harm us. However, too much carbon dioxide, like too much oxygen or anything else, can be toxic.
The global climate change issue seems to break down along political lines. Republican, conservative, industrialist, and free marketeers tend to dismiss global warming. They support the views of scientists and scientific data that show human activity has not supplied enough emissions to affect the climate. Liberal, Democrat, the regulation-oriented, and environmentalists tend to embrace global warming and support scientists and scientific data that show human activity negatively affecting the creators (or evolutions) delicate balance of gases in the atmosphere. Of course, these stereotypes are not absolute, but are useful in placing the science of global warming theory in a political context and the politics in a scientific context. Many people believe that science and politics do not mix very well. In fact, even though many internationally prominent scientists support global warming theory, the Senate was almost unanimous in rejecting an international global warming agreement in 1991. And the Clinton/Gore administration did not fight for passage of the agreement. In politics, sometimes the science is not the primary consideration. Regardless, what does this mean to the African American community?
Higher prices for measures to address global warming, such as universal scrubber requirements, high priced gasoline to promote conservation, higher priced vehicles, and higher taxes to fund federal mandates, could negatively affect the American economy. African Americans are just beginning to freely participate in U.S. capitalism. Although many of the old constraints of racism still plague African American participation in the economy, enterprising individuals and groups are creating dynamic business opportunities. Unfortunately, at a time when African Americans are free to pursue pure capitalism, environmental regulations can serve as contemporary barriers to our participation. When we can afford beachfront property and have the wherewithal to overcome red lining, environmental regulations can still prevent us from owning our dream homes in our dream locations. When we can afford to move to green spaces in suburban and rural areas, smart growth regulations and laws can stop us. When we are in a position to redevelop formerly polluted industrial sites, pollution liability laws can scare off investors. When we are prepared to industrialize, caviar climate change requirements could restrict us.
Current restrictions on African American pursuit of life, liberty and happiness can be contrasted with the fact that others already benefited economically for hundreds of years from an absence of regulations. Majority populations occupy every square foot of some waterfront, beachfront and green areas. Moreover, majority populations have freely industrialized and attained massive tracts of property over many years. Still, many African Americans are environmentally conscientious (though not purely in the traditional definition). African Americans are capitalists too. We need a combination of economic opportunities and environmental protections to enhance our lives, liberties and pursuit of happiness. Unfortunately, traditional environmentalists, on the one hand and conservative Republicans on the other hand, rarely take us into consideration when formulating societal policies. Congressman F. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) is a refreshing exception to this reality. Thus, we must conduct our own science, come to our own conclusions and work for the adoption of policies that maximize the protection of our health and competitive position.
As mentioned earlier, the U.S. Senate rejected the Kyoto Protocol, which specified commitments by individual countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, during the Clinton administration. At the same time 160 other nations have agreed to the Kyoto Protocol. President Bush rejected the Kyoto global warming treaty in 2001, saying it would harm the U.S. economy while exempting developing countries, including India and China, from mandatory emissions targets. President Bushs alternative Clear Skies Initiative provides a voluntary trading program that would allow big polluters exceeding emission targets to buy credits from cleaner companies whose emissions come in lower than the targets. The Bush proposal also includes reductions based on the level of economic activity. Policies addressing climate change are not allowed to constrain economic activity. President Bush abandoned a campaign pledge in March of 2001 to place mandatory controls on carbon dioxide emissions.
Again, critics believe that it is impossible to single out CO2 from all the other gases that make up the greenhouse mixture in the atmosphere. Critics reject the postulated negative effects of the greenhouse gases based on their small percentage of atmospheric composition. Man and womankind, as global managers, must predict the influence that human activities and the resultant emissions, have on our atmosphere well before there is an actual effect. In the case of climate and the air we breathe, we should be extremely vigilant. The scientific argument regarding the low percentage of greenhouse gases must be put into context. Nitrogen makes up 78.1% of the atmosphere but our lungs absorb oxygen in our bloodstream, which is 20.9%, and not nitrogen. In fact, nitrogen is toxic in the human system. If it is squeezed into the bloodstream, as happens when divers surface too quickly, humans get the bends and can die. Higher oxygen percentages would also adversely affect humans and the functions of the earth. Too high a percentage of oxygen in the atmosphere would lead to spontaneous fires. Too much oxygen in the human bloodstream is also fatal. The creator or evolution precisely calibrated the balance of gases needed for earthly existence. We must be respectful of the fact that even small changes in the trace gases could catastrophically alter our atmosphere.
Two things are certain: African American advancement and health are inextricably tied to economic development and a clean environment. We have been banned, excluded, avoided, sabotaged, and self-restricted in participating in the American marketplace. African Americans should not support any policy that will hurt the U.S. economy. African Americans should not support any policy that will hurt the African American economy. African American should not support any policy that will sacrifice our environment. All policies that increase costs for production and distribution of goods and services are passed on to consumers. A private sector based, profit-oriented emissions trading system that aggressively reduces greenhouse gases would appeal to marketeers, liberal regulators, the general public and African Americans.
America has a history of accepting a certain level of pollution in exchange for a high standard of living. Americans want clean air but also want large SUVs, multiple cars, televisions, stores stocked with an almost limitless variety of products and numerous mechanized yard tools. Citizens of the U.S. want to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and we want low prices, but we are unwilling to stop living in suburbs and driving to work alone every day. We use 17 million barrels of oil every single day. America wants clean rivers, but is not willing to pay the cost of replacing and separating our sewer lines. Americans want clean drinking water, but are unwilling to pay the price to replace our old, urban drinking water lines and improving our treatment facilities. Unfortunately, some environmentalists expect African Americans to unquestioningly accept their entire purist, anti pollution agenda without any regard to economics. This, while current majority recipients of ancestral advantage enjoys the maximum benefits of material comfort. Should the African American community agree to climate change restrictions that could be harmful to our economic development? Should the African American community ignore climate change proposals that could protect our health?
The traditional environmental community does not consider our perspective if our views are in disagreement with their dogma. African Americans also have significant differences with conservative, right wing Republicans. So African Americans are not obligated to embrace recommendations that are contrary to our interests. We can identify, formulate, develop and inculcate a healthy environment in our own communities. Of course, the global climate affects all of us.
Maybe people have to start dropping dead in the street before policy makers decide that global warming is unhealthy. Although we can clearly see pollutants in our air during summer months, Americans appear to accept a certain level of respiratory distress and deaths. Many Americans already die from smog-induce asthma and heart attacks, but air pollution is still allowed to exist in our metropolitan areas. Society has accepted these fatalities as the price of doing business. Americans are allowed to die from air pollution even though the Clean Air Act has been on the books for 32 years. Environmental problems arent necessarily solved even when we enact laws and regulations to address them. Thus, we are probably some years away from serious consideration or regulation of a global warming problem.
If we are to believe the scientific evidence that the planet is perfectly capable of self-managing mans development emissions, then the United States can continue its unfettered growth as the worlds largest emitter of greenhouse gases, accounting for roughly 25 percent of global emissions, yet representing 5% of the earths population. Moreover, if global warming does not exist and is not a problem in the foreseeable future, then we can ignore the fact that greenhouse gas emissions from developing countries will soon overtake those from developed countries. If the planet is capable of absorbing unlimited amounts of human activity-generated emissions, then unfettered growth by China, India, Southeast Asia and the rest of the developing world can continue to emit unlimited greenhouse gases in attaining developed nation status. The Kyoto Protocol even exempts developing countries, including India and China, from mandatory emissions targets. Should the African American community unite with environmentalists while everyone else rushes towards economic prosperity?
Proponents and opponents of global climate change theory use each others data to advance their own arguments. Duke University ecologist Robert B. Jackson recently released analyses that heralded the end of the 'free ride' on ecosystem CO2 absorption. The free ride to which Jackson refers is the increase in the capacity of the world's soils to store carbon as a consequence of the increase in the growth of the planet's vegetation that has been driven by the increase in the air's CO2. The free ride Jackson alludes to includes the ability of earth's plants to extract ever increasing amounts of the CO2 that are emitted into the air during long periods of time and absorbs its carbon in their tissues and the soils in which they grow. Jackson believes that this free ride is over. Critics believe that this process is perfectly fine and will continue to balance earths atmosphere. Critics believe that Jacksons observation actually implies that earth's vegetation will absorb ever more carbon as the CO2 concentration of the atmosphere continues to rise, thereby exerting an increasingly more powerful brake on the rate of increase in the air's CO2 content and reducing the potential for deleterious global warming.
According to the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change (Study Center), the highly-hyped "unprecedented global warming" of the past two decades never actually occurred. They rely on analyses from the U.S. Historical Climatological Network data set, which is a product of the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center and the National Climatic Data Center to support their position. The readings come from monthly temperature and precipitation data from 1,221 stations located within the United States. The Study Centers data includes (1) the satellite microwave-sounding-unit temperature record, which in the absence of the massive 1998 El Niño heat pulse shows no warming whatsoever from 1979 to the present, (2) the weather-balloon temperature record, which for the same circumstances also shows no warming, (3) the surface- and satellite-derived temperature records of earth's polar regions, which also show no warming, and (4) the U.S. Historical Climatology Network data base, also shows no statistically significant warming over this period.
The Study Center augments this body of evidence for no global warming over the last two decades with observations from tree-ring reconstructions of surface air temperature. They believe that enhanced tree growth induced by the historical rise in the air's CO2 content has been increasing the growth rates of trees all around the world for over a hundred years. They believe that earth's temperature has experienced no net warming during the past 70 years when the vast majority of all human-produced CO2 has been emitted to the atmosphere. The Study Center concludes that since there should have been a sizeable CO2-induced increase in atmospheric warming over this period, there must have been some compensatory negative feedbacks that totally overwhelmed the standard "greenhouse" impetus for warming.
Global climate change analyses will continue to challenge humankind. Proponents of climate warming want to err on the side of caution and implement policies and procedures to prevent catastrophic consequences of climate change. Opponents of climate warming theory do not believe the sky is falling. They believe that we should continue with business as usual. The African American community should take a balanced approach and combine a reasonable response to numbers suggesting some influence on our atmosphere while aggressively participating in on-going economic development. We should also be prepared to participate in public and private initiatives that address global climate change. Empirical evidence demonstrates that humankinds emissions lead directly to smog, acid rain, dirty water and negative human health consequences in Americas urban, suburban and rural areas. A measured response to our atmospheric climate management is prudent. African Americans should position themselves to protect the health, environment and economic security of our communities.
Norris McDonald, President, African American Environmentalist Association