Why Americans Really Need to Pay Attention to Copenhagen

Negotiations have resumed in Copenhagen after a walkout by the African delegation on Monday. African governments were concerned with the lack of commitment by rich country governments to reducing their own emissions. This follows on the heels of last week's leaked "Danish text" controversy; the text contained proposals that have the world's poorest countries carrying the largest share of the environmental burden. How the Obama Administration deals with fairness questions in Copenhagen will also signal what we can expect domestically as we respond to the recession by building a green economy.


Wealthy countries have done the most environmental damage -- the top 10 contribute nearly 70 percent of all carbon emissions. Yet the Danish draft ignores these numbers, requiring the poor to reduce twice as much as the wealthy. This is expensive - it's cheaper and faster to use existing energy sources to produce plastic, say, rather than to develop new energy for new products that don't hurt the environment. The great irony, of course, is that poor countries have already paid for the damage caused by rich ones. I can't recall the last time a drought or tsunami killed hundreds of thousands of Danes.

The same divisions have played out in our own economy. Communities of color, who experience the highest rates of joblessness and poverty, have also been hardest hit by environmental injustices. According to J. Andrew Hoerner and Nia Robinson of Redefining Progress, African Americans suffer a number of losses from environmental degradation. Remember the heat waves of recent summers? They caused black people to die almost twice as often as whites. Racism itself fuels the climate crisis by generating inefficient overdevelopment. "White flight" and racial segregation in earlier decades meant growing white suburbs while rural and urban neighborhoods populated by people of color fell prey to the discriminatory placement of toxic incinerators, power plants, factories, and other big polluters.

These inequities have been thrown into high relief by the current recession. Officially, unemployment among blacks and Latinos runs almost 50 percent higher than it does for whites. The California jobless rate for whites was 10.7; for blacks and Latinos over 14 percent. Among young blacks and Latinos, the rate is over 50 percent.

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