Obama's environmental legacy hangs in the balance

As this tumultuous election season comes to a close, politicians and media pundits have been stuck on the narrative of African Americans as powerless victims of violence and oppression. It's a trope that fully neglects to consider the groundswell of black leaders taking charge of the future and health of our communities. And there is perhaps no better example of this leadership than the growing green economy.

The green economy is a rising priority for African Americans for two reasons: injustice and opportunity. African Americans are disproportionately affected by pollution and more vulnerable to climate change because of where we live and what resources we have access to. At the same time, African Americans have been underserved and underrepresented in the growing green economy — an issue I've worked to combat by working with climate justice groups like Green For All and as a small business owner by creating livable wage, renewable energy jobs in the solar sector.


Black leaders across the country — led by President Barack Obama — recognize the urgency of taking action on this issue. It is why we are collectively advocating for stronger pollution limits and prioritized green investments.

This month, two critical policies that directly impact the growth of the green economy and health of our communities are up for debate: the nation's first mandatory carbon pollution policy, known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative or RGGI, and the nation's largest carbon pollution policy, known as the Clean Power Plan.

For generations fossil fuel companies have been benefiting from cheap energy while passing the climate, health and economic costs on to affected families. They've made a remarkably consistent profit putting smokestacks in our backyards; it's no coincidence that 68 percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal plant and black children are 4.4 times more likely to be hospitalized due to asthma attacks than their white peers.

The nine Northeast governors who are part of RGGI are in the process of deciding whether to strengthen the carbon pollution cap. Concurrently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit is now considering the legality of President Obama's Clean Power Plan, after seven hours of oral arguments last week. To boost clean air and well paying jobs in our communities, we need to strengthen RGGI with a 5 percent annual carbon pollution cap from 2020-2030 and support upholding the Clean Power Plan in the courts.

RGGI began shifting the burden of carbon pollution costs from families to polluters 10 years ago. By charging power plants for carbon pollution, RGGI states created an investment source for green entrepreneurs like myself to grow our businesses, create well paying jobs and further reduce pollution. Despite critics saying that it would harm the economy, it has actually served to do just the opposite. Since the program began, RGGI states have lowered carbon pollution 16 percent more than other states, while outpacing economic growth in those same states by an additional 3.6 percent.

Despite Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker leading the charge for a 5 percent annual carbon cap, the administration of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a fellow Republican, said Maryland may leave RGGI if the cap is strengthened. This would be a mistake, potentially slowing the state's job growth and economy. That's why I'm calling on Governor Hogan to reverse course and embrace, along with the other RGGI governors, the 5 percent annual pollution cap while creating a plan to guarantee net economic and environmental benefits from RGGI for underserved communities.

Meanwhile, the future of the Clean Power Plan, the first initiative of its kind to curb carbon dioxide, also hangs in the balance. Polluters are attempting to block it, even though 83 percent of African Americans support the plan, which will pave the way for hundreds of thousands of clean energy jobs while lowering household electricity bills. Tools like the Clean Power For All Policy Innovation Center are already pro-actively identifying ways in which states can leverage an upheld Clean Power Plan toward helping those most harmed by poverty and pollution.

President Obama has been ahead of the curve on this issue, staking his legacy on addressing climate change and boosting the future clean energy. Now is the time for all of us to back him up. America needs to make polluters pay for carbon emissions and ensure families living at the front lines of poverty and pollution stand at the forefront of the green economy.

Mark Davis is the founder of WDC Solar Inc. in Washington, D.C., one of the nation's first African American-owned solar panel installation companies. He can be reached at